Dan Auerbach is preserving music, motorcycles, and the American spirit.
AS TOLD TO Chris Nelson IMAGES Alysse Gafkjen & Wes Duenkel
He's the leader singer of The Black Keys and The Arcs, an accomplished solo musician, and the founder of a newly established record label, Easy Eye Sound. Dan Auerbach, 39, a deep, soulful artist with eight Grammys to his name, hails from Akron, Ohio, but seems reborn in his adopted home of Nashville. When he isn’t in the studio playing or producing, he’s exploring the Tennessee backwoods on one of his many post-war Harleys, all of which proudly wear the patina of their past lives. We recently caught up with Auerbach and discussed where his motorcycles have taken him — and where he’s taking his music career.
Chris Nelson: I know you’re the son of an antique dealer, but where’d your love for antique Harleys come from?
Dan Auerbach: My friend Mike Wolfe [of American Pickers] got me into Harleys. I never really rode one until I hung around him and his buddy Dave Ohrt from Iowa ... must’ve been seven years ago. Dave taught Mike everything he knows about motorcycles, and Mike introduced me to Dave. It's people like Dave — those freaks who are in love with the big twins — it's contagious. It was like that for me, especially after I rode one for the first time. The bike felt perfect. I was like, “Why have I been riding all this other bullshit?” I wanted to take all my other bikes and just fuckin' roll them into the woods.
CN: All of your Harleys look like beautiful-but-forgotten barn finds. Why?
DA: The way some of these guys decorated their bikes, I see them as being folk art. It wasn't enough to have a Knucklehead — you had to make it your own. I like the personality. It’s like American history. A Harley by itself, just alone, is American history, then you add on top of it the personality of someone who lived with it for years and cared about it so much that they dressed it up. You know what I mean? Just the thought of that ... That's why guys feel so connected to these old bikes. They're like family.
1937 Harley-Davidson EL | Photo by Wes Duenkel
1969 BMW R60/2 | Photo by Wes Duenkel
CN: While you care a lot about all of your bikes, is there one you’re particularly fond of?
DA: I've got a '36 with this wild old custom paint job that somebody did in the ‘50s. It is the coolest bike. I feel like I sort of collected them all just to finally get this one. There's just something about it — it's not too much, it's not too little. It’s a first-year Knuckle. The tank and fenders were all together and painted, so I found a stash of different parts from different places. It took forever. That's part of the reason why I love it so much; it took me the longest to find the last couple parts. It really is the most folk-art kind of bike I have. I really love that kind of stuff.
CN: For the next year, ten of your Harleys will be on display at Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum. What brought about that decision?
DA: Basically my wife is starting a business, and she wanted our barn, so she kicked my ass out. Lane was kind enough to do a display.
The designs from the '30s are still the best designs. They're still the ones that people come back to — the ones that if you take care of them, they'll last forever.
CN: Hell of a good husband. You know you’re a truly passionate collector when you can create an entire museum exhibit out of your personal belongings.
DA: I find something that I like, then I dive into it. The big twins are sort of like that for me. I end up only hanging out with those weird old “big twin guys.” Old Harleys are a lot like old music studios. The designs from the '30s are still the best designs. They're still the ones that people come back to — the ones that if you take care of them, they'll last forever.
1938 Harley-Davidson UL Sport Solo | Photo by Wes Duenkel
1941 Harley-Davidson EL | Photo by Wes Duenkel
CN: Thanks for that natural segue to discuss your music and the music you’re curating. What's it been like writing and producing music in your Mecca, Nashville?
DA: It was the only place for me, I guess. It's the only other place I've ever lived, besides Ohio. Being in Nashville, there are all of these incredible musicians ... People who have been making records for decades. People who've made some of my favorite records of all time. These are guys who just live right around the corner from my studio. I've been lucky enough to be able to meet some incredible musicians and to work with them on different records and various projects. There's really nothing I'd rather do.
1946 Harley-Davidson FL | Photo by Wes Duenkel
CN: Tell me about Easy Eye Sound.
DA: I've just started a label. I’ve started putting out records that we do here at my studio in Nashville. This is a new thing for me. All these records, they've got a lot of personality. There's not really any one particular style I've been working on. This is an equal opportunity label: different genres, all mixed up. We've got a soul singer from Louisiana named Robert Finley. We’ve got a young girl named Shannon Shaw from Oakland, California. We've got Shannon and the Clams. We've got a bunch of stuff slated for release this year. There’s the opportunity for me to use whatever I have to help other musicians get their name out there and make a living — I love that. I'm not going to work with anybody who I don't really love.
1946 Harley-Davidson FL | Photo by Wes Duenkel
Ironhead Sportster Custom "Black Dracula" | Photo by Wes Duenkel
CN: When you find something you love, clearly it consumes you. I can only imagine that producing or recording an album can be a painful process for you.
DA: I don't think about it too much. I don't pay attention to anything, really. I started this label now, so I have to pay attention a little bit, but I'm fully committed to zoning out and just trying to be as creative as possible. It's not that I don't give a fuck; it's the opposite. I care so much that I don't want to divert my attention from what I'm focused on. Any record I make is really in the moment. It's all about capturing sounds. It’s sort of a snapshot of that moment in time. It's pretty much the same for every artist I’ve worked with or band I've played in — you just don't know what will happen until it's over.
CN: Appreciate you taking the time to talk, Dan. Before you go, are there any motorcycles you’re looking to buy soon?
DA: I'm not looking for any fucking bikes. Don't send me any. Don't send me any of your friends that are selling any of them. I don't want to hear about them. You can't own a record label and buy things. You just pick one or the other.
Condolences to the friends and family of musician Richard Swift, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 41. Swift played for and toured with The Arcs and The Black Keys, and produced records with Foxygen, Guster, Tennis, and The Shins. On Easy Eye Sound’s Instagram account, Auerbach wrote: “Today the world lost one of the most talented musicians I know. He’s now with his Mom and Sister. I will miss you my friend.”
danauerbachmusic.com | @easyeyesound