The Black Keys’ sold-out show at the Arena in Berlin Alt-Treptow on January 28, 2012 was a real blast, and Palmer had the fortune to interview Dan Johnson, the guitar tech and stage manager (”I handle some of the other backline, too, the keyboards and bass rig”), and Jason M. Tarulli, the FOH engineer of the band.
Palmer Germany: What have you been doing before working for the Black Keys?
JASON: I was a sound engineer at several clubs around northeast Ohio, a lot of dive bars and seedy places running sound, and I worked at a club where the Black Keys first started playing. I’ve known them since then and eventually got the call to go on tour.
DAN: I have been a guitar tech for a long time, so I’ve worked for other bands before the Black Keys. We’re from Akron which is where the band are from. That’s how we know them, of course. In 1998 I opened a guitar shop doing repairs, and in wandered a young Dan Auerbach. I’ve been fixing guitars for him ever since although in the early days they couldn’t afford to have a guitar tech on tour with them. Eventually they grew to a level where they needed somebody to keep things from breaking. Dan’s too busy, and the shows are getting bigger and more important. But I’ve worked for other bands, too. I worked for Judas Priest and an Icelandic band called Sigur Rós, and recently I did a tour with Sonic Youth.
Are all the people working for the Black Keys people they knew from the beginning? They seem like a family somehow.
DAN: At first it was an all hometown crew, and now it’s a mixture. Some parts of the crew grew so much that we had to add people, and some people got replaced. But generally Jason and I are the only ones left from Akron. Everybody else is just industry, people that have drifted in or were sought out to join the team to handle this level of production. Things are a lot bigger than they were just even last year. Jason is using three or four times the PA system he was.
There are some older live videos of the band on YouTube playing small venues. So you started out mixing those, and now you’re mixing these huge shows. They trusted you, and you’ve grown with them. How do you feel about that?
JASON: I’m really fortunate to be able to come up like that with those guys along the way. I started mixing with them maybe four years ago, and the first time was, like I said, in a club before the first gig outside of Ohio. They had me do Red Rocks in Colorado which I was terrified of. It’s the biggest gig, it’s 10,000 capacity. Coming from clubs of about four or five hundred people to that was amazing actually. I love it!
DAN: How about the festivals?
JASON: The first time I did a festival might have been Austin City Limits, like 60,000 people.
DAN: Bonnaroo this year was 70,000 people or something like that, a sea of people. You just can’t even imagine that those people can see anything, but they can hear it.
JASON: Yeah, we’ve done some enormous shows over the past few years especially, and they’re getting bigger. As far as arenas and things like that go, we’re probably looking at anywhere between 10 and 20,000 people just for a regular show, and then festivals on top of that.
Do the band play small gigs sometimes for the fans, in small venues?
JASON: Yeah, they just did a record release party in New York in a smaller venue, 1,500 people. It was nice to come back to that.
How did you get to the jobs that you’re doing today? These aren’t common jobs, obviously.
JASON: I was going to college and working in a record store, and I was in a band. I started working sound in a local bar for friends and eventually got into bigger clubs. I met Pat through some friends. He recorded a record for the band that I was in about ten years ago.
What was the name of the band?
JASON: Tight Whips, it was just rock and roll music. So the Black Keys had done some shows locally that I’d worked, and after bouncing around northeast Ohio a while in different clubs and whatnot I eventually got a call from Dan one day asking me if I was busy. I thought they were coming through town, and maybe they wanted me to work for them. But they wanted me to go out to Colorado and do a show with them, and I’ve been with them ever since. So I kind of just fell into it.
Did you have any training as a sound engineer?
JASON: No, none of that.
DAN: Sound engineer training is on the job.
JASON: There probably are some schools that you can go to but I was just lucky enough to have the experience and keep developing and learning more. Having a band like these guys to work for was a huge deal to help out, to nurture something that was just essentially a hobby into a career.
How about you, Dan? How did you get to…
DAN: Work for the Black Keys, or to work on guitars in the first place?
How did you become a technician? How did you learn about guitars?
DAN: When I was really young my father had a guitar in the house although he didn’t really play it. He would keep it up on a shelf, because I was really little, and I think he didn’t want me to break it so I never got to touch it. And I always wanted to, so eventually when I became the age where I could actually play it I got a guitar just banging on it. I was about eight years old, and I’ve been always obsessed with it. Through high school I would do just guitar type projects making guitars in wood shop classes at school, and I just continued. Eventually, when I was maybe 20 years old I got a job at a guitar repair shop in town where we did just all kinds of restorations, repairs, paint jobs to changing the strings. It was just absolutely everything, and we also made guitars. Boy, I’ve been doing that my whole life, really. I’ve had some other jobs but they didn’t keep my attention on them.
When I made the actual transition into touring that took a special thing because the business is difficult to break into to actually get a job being a touring guitar tech, and that was because a good friend from home became the singer for Judas Priest. We were in a band together, and at one point he said ”I’m going to audition for Judas Priest” and he did. He got the job right away, and because they hadn’t been touring for a while they had no crew. Some time later they gave me a chance, and I went on tour with them for a few years. That just kind of led to other jobs. The touring crew scene was not very big really. A lot of people would know just about everybody in the circle, so it’s easy to network and grow in it. That’s how one job has led to another over the years for me.
But pretty much the whole time I’ve known Dan and the Black Keys because they started pretty nearly the same time I started touring. They were still a young band and growing, and they didn’t need me yet although I worked on Dan’s guitars when he was at home. He was always buying new things that needed fixing up, and I always took care of them for him. But at one point I think some things broke. I think they were at some shows where they couldn’t finish the show because some things broke, the amplifiers all blew or a pedal broke or something. They couldn’t finish the show, and it was bad. So I got a call the next day saying ”I think it’s time”, and here we are a few years later. It’s just grown considerably since then. It was so much easier, I should say, when it was just the two of them. We would do shows and it was just Dan and Pat, and we would fly to dates and play on rented drums and guitar amplifiers. So we would walk in with two guitars and a pedalboard, and that’s it. And when we were done we would just pack up those two guitars and the pedalboard and get in the van and go back to the airport. It was just like that for over a year probably, and then we started doing some more tours. Later things started growing, his needs for more switching and fancier, louder amplifiers. It’s just all constantly building and growing, and now we have a pretty substantial guitar rig.
Who are your influences in the business? Do you have any mentors?
BOTH: No, no.
DAN: Before I was doing this I didn’t really know of any people that did the job, so I’ve never aspired to be like them. In fact, I always just wanted to play guitar in my own band. I just happened to get some work working on other people’s guitars that have gotten farther in the business than I did. So now that I know some people in the business I do look up to a few guys. You can tell the older more experienced guys that have done just so much touring. They’re pretty impressive people because of the exposure to all the travel and the super hi-tech gear that none of us could have afforded when we were young. I also am building a rig for Dan that I would love to have so that’s kind of a big motivator, really. Just the teaming up with Dan and trying to meet his requests has been a big influence, really. I mean I have a lot of influences as far as guitar playing but that’s not really about being a technician.
How would you define the music philosophy of the Black Keys, their approach to music?
JASON: I would say it’s very straightforward, drums, guitars and vocals, and the fact that they’ve added a few extra guys still keeps it simple. But they’re not virtuosos or anything, so they’re as simple as the approach.
DAN: And good
It’s about the energy and the sound…
DAN: Obviously there’s a lot of blues influence, but they’ve always been a band that’s been about the power riff, a hard driving riff that supplements a really well-written song. Their songs are not like some bands’ that might be trying to make the most artistic music they can make which wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience. These guys are about listening to the classics and borrowing the best bits of everything and then taking it in their own direction. It’s always been led by guitar, that’s for sure. The earlier stuff was a lot more guitar oriented, that’s all there was, just guitar and drums. Nowadays the guitar is a rhythm instrument that’s supplementing because the song could continue if Dan stops playing on most of the new material. But if he stops on the old songs the song’s just done. So I think they’re heavily influenced by the classics, really.
You are technicians who are helping the band to reproduce their album. They’ve made albums with a sound of their own which is a very important feature of the Black Keys. What are the challenges for you to reproduce this sound live?
JASON: There are a lot of things that are different live. Obviously the environment is not as controlled as in the studio. You’re in a large room, there’s a lot of acoustics to deal with and so on and so forth. But I think what makes it work the most is having communication between ourselves and the band, and working out sounds and tones and things like that. For instance, I’ll talk with Dan about guitar tones, and we’ll work them out before the band comes up for sound check to make sure everything’s good, and I’ll work with the drum tech and the rest of the backline and get that sorted, and then the band willl come out and make sure that they approve and everything works. We work really hard to make sure everything’s exactly how it should be.
DAN: We’re not just trying to make it work, but rather really dial it in. Like, I’ll play riffs for him to adjust from the front so that the band doesn’t have to stand up there and do that.
And we listen to the material in advance, consult with the band on what they did on the record if they can remember. Then we try and reproduce it. The way they create, they forget what they did instantly. Their creative process in the studio is pretty spontaneous I would say, where they all make a song, record it, edit it into what the final take is, and then they learn how to play it live. You might think they would be jamming, or somebody wrote a song and they would play it for a while and then record it. They don’t do that, they record it from seemingly nothing and then learn how to play it live and learn how to recreate those sounds live.
JASON: they’ll change arrangements and do different sounds for different parts for live versus what’s happening on the record. And it’s close but I feel the live show is much more powerful, it’s almost heavy at times. But it’s just about feeling, so when you go to a rock show you want to kind of…
JASON: Yeah, you definitely do!
DAN: Even a delicate song performed in this live environment can become pretty powerful like a ”Ten Cent Pistol” or an ”Everlasting Light”. There’s some pretty delicate songs on the record but live they kick!
The Black Keys have done this Blakroc project, and in the videos on the web you see them in the studio building up the song as it goes.
DAN: Jason organized that, he was the coordinator. He’d get all the musicians.
JASON: When we did the promotional and television appearances in New York we were there for a week. I went with the guys and was able to go to some of the recording sessions, and we did the television appearances. I was just along to help out, help keep things organized a bit.
DAN: And it turned into an overwhelming amount of work…
JASON: It was great to experience that. It was a whole other direction of music for those guys and for me compared to just straightforward rock and roll.
Would you say Blakroc gave them this push because ”Brothers” came after that?
JASON: It’s hard to say. I think Blakroc came and went, and then ”Brothers” just overshadowed everything really quick.
DAN: I think Blakroc was sort of a side project but they didn’t really push hard at the commercial end of it. They did get some attention for sure. But they were working on ”Brothers” at the same time, and it just exploded in popularity so they had to go where the action is.
When did you actually start implementing the Palmer gear into the setup?
JASON: I was in Nashville and talked to a gentleman named Lance at Tour Supply, and he said ”Hey, you should try these, you might like them”. So I got a couple of them, and we plugged them in and almost instantly fell in love with the direct boxes. We were looking through the catalogue and went ”Whoo, we should try all this other stuff”, and the more things we tried the more we liked them. So it was kind of love at first sight.
DAN: Yeah, it was definitely the DI first. We plugged it into the guitar rig, so Dan Auerbach got to really hear what it sounded like out front. He was so pleased with it, and also because you guys at Palmer were so easy to put the products at our hands to try out. We got a Thruster, the boost pedal, and I wasn’t able to put it in his rig right away. So I took it home and tried it through maybe ten different amplifiers and just thoroughly tested it out, and I just thought ”This is great”. And it’s really well made.
What do you use the Thruster for exactly?
DAN: We use the Thruster for just a tiny bit of boost, and it’s a very transparent clean boost because his amps are set to a point where they’re at the threshold of distortion. That means if he plays more delicately they get a little cleaner, and if he starts to pound on the guitar they get a little dirtier, and when you engage just the tiniest bit of a clean boost it just puts the amps right over the edge into a warm smooth tube overdrive. The Thruster is a great unit for that. We’ve tried out quite a lot of other brands of clean boost pedals, and it’s the most transparent.
Which other products do you use with the Black Keys?
JASON: Mainly I just use the guitar direct boxes. I like the passive ones the best. We tried the active ones but because we have such high gain the amps started to overdrive them. So we use all the passive direct boxes, and I think those are all great especially because of the way we have the guitar amps on stage. They’re so close the guitars are bleeding into each other a lot. So having those direct boxes allows for a good tone comparable to the microphone if not better, because there’s not much ambient noise getting vacuumed into it. Having the direct signal allows you to juice the gain without getting feedback anywhere, especially for the monitors. But in front of the house they can do the same. I can get low end that I couldn’t get before because we’d have to filter that out because of feedback from the stage. Compression in some places works really well because it’s not vacuuming in the amp that’s next to it. So the direct boxes have been great, especially for me. And the bass direct box is really great as well, it’s nice and smooth.
DAN: It was probably the second piece of Palmer gear we got.
JASON: Yeah. We were just using a cheap passive DI before, whatever the venue would give us. Then we finally brought that along, and it was a huge improvement. So having that and the guitar direct boxes have improved things quite a bit, and they actually made things a little easier, too, just because they cleaned up our stage sound.
DAN: We have a lot of isolation on each signal, for sure.
You’re using the PDI-CTC for the bass. What exactly did that bring to the sound?
JASON: I feel there’s a little bit of a boost to it rather than using a passive direct box in line. You don’t have to add in as much gain, and the frequency response is a lot better. I can get a lot of lows and a lot of highs if I want to. Those are the main things really. It’s a smoother overall kind of sound than the flavour of the day direct boxes from before. We haven’t always carried full production. Sometimes we’d come to a venue, and they’d just give us this cheap box that may or may not work. Having something nice that works is a huge bonus.
So basically it helps you to maintain the same sound at each show?
JASON: Absolutely, that’s part of the thing. The other part is that this is the second tour we’ve had the same sound system, so having the same tools on stage as well as the same sound system helps with consistency a lot. Of course, each room changes night to night but what we bring to that room is the same, and that helps a lot, definitely.
What about the Triage? How do you use that?
DAN: We have three amplifiers, and it’s a really good splitter. I’m sure the signal is buffered in the splitting which is fine because I have some pretty long cables to deal with. The Triage gives you so many options in running three amps at one time. We don’t really switch the amps in or out, all three are always on. But it has one in and three outs, and you can reverse the phase, adjust the gain and lift the ground for each of the three. It’s just exactly what you need to run a multiple amp setup. What turned me on about the Thruster when I first saw it was the heavy duty housing, and the knobs were mounted on the back. It was just designed for stomping on and not getting bent or beat up. And the Triage is built just the same way, too, as some of the other products. The very first thing that we tried was the rack mounted direct boxes, but once I started seeing the pedals I thought, this doesn’t look like anybody else’s product. So that led me to using the power supply, too. When I started building the new rack with all the pedals in it I thought, these other products are so good I might as well stick with using Palmer products and try the power supply, and it works great, too. It’s got a lot of outputs, a lot of switchability for the different voltages that it can supply. It’s very versatile, and we have a lot of different products to power, so it covers it all.
And it doesn’t break!
DAN: No, I haven’t had any problems with any of the Palmer products that we’ve had so far.
Do you have a favourite band or bands?
JASON: The Black Keys, that’s the only band we like. I listen to a lot of stuff.
DAN: Tame Impala.
JASON: Yeah, there’s a band in Australia called Tame Impala. I got the record last year, been listening to it a lot lately. And I’ve been listening to Black Mountain. There’s a band called Wooden Ships from San Francisco, been into that, and a lot of heavy psych kind of rock and roll things.
DAN: A lot of fuzzy guitar!
JASON: Yeah! I think working for who we do we have to like fuzzy guitars, but it changes a lot. It just depends on what’s going on and how I feel.
DAN: I’m really excited that there’s gonna be a reunion of one of my favourite bands, Refused, a Swedish band. They’re amazing, I can’t wait to see them. I love a lot of different things. I like And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, an American band from Austin, not so much of the fuzzy guitars but just mainly rock and roll. I like a lot of the previous bands that I worked for, too. Sonic Youth is amazing. They’re an influence on just about anybody in this camp.
JASON: I’ve listened to them since I was a teenager.
DAN: I’ve worked for this Icelandic band, Sigur Rós. They don’t really fit into any of the other band categories but they’re an amazing group of musicians. And if I ever work for any of these bands again, they’ll be using some Palmer products for sure if not already.
Who are your favourite guitarists?
DAN: Now I’d have to go with Hendrix, some of the classics. It’s tough, there are so many.
JASON: Guitarists, they’re great. I don’t have a favourite, not of the top of my head. There’s a band called Danava from Oregon, the guy’s first name is Greg. He plays guitars, and it’s phenomenal. It’s the first thing that popped in my head because I saw them play a few months ago. It was really amazing, but I totally forgot his name.
DAN: Toni Iommi. We’d been watching this video on YouTube of them in Paris 1970 doing ”War Pigs”. It’s stunning, he’s amazing.
JASON: It’s one of those things you can watch first thing in the morning to get awake, to get the blood flowing.
Apple or Windows, which do you prefer?
JASON: Apple, even though all the stuff I have up front runs on Windows.
Digital or analogue?
JASON: It’s hard to say. They both have a merit. I prefer analogue, but there’s a lot more options with digital. You can do a lot more with it with a lot less space. If we really did all-analogue I think we could fill half the front of this house. The desk’s about as big as this couch.
DAN: It’s actually kind of small.
JASON: It’s self contained. A large format analogue desk would be maybe two of these plus racks.
DAN: Three couches!
What’s your favourite town in the U.S.?
DAN: I don’t know. I might say something like New Orleans or Austin, these are pretty great. Los Angeles, I love it there.
JASON: It’s nice to be able to go and see all these cities in short bursts. New York is nice, it can be.
DAN: They are all so different. I love San Francisco, too. It’s fantastic, absolutely beautiful.
And your favourite town in Europe?
JASON: That’s hard to say. I rarely spent a lot of time outside of work in a lot of the cities. I believe we had a couple of days off in Paris last year, it was very nice. We’ve been to London a few times, Amsterdam…
DAN: Amsterdam’s great, Prague’s pretty amazing. Barcelona, it’s good to have a day off there but I don’t know what it’d be to actually live there. But visiting is amazing.
What do you do when you’re not on tour with the Black Keys?
DAN: When I go home I’m a full time dad or working on guitars.
JASON: I’m working in the studio.
DAN: Jason has his own studio at home!
JASON: Yeah, so there’s no downtime, there’s no hobbies, just work.
Do you have any idea what might be the next audio revolution?
JASON: It’s hard to say.
DAN: Vacuum tubes, digital tubes, I don’t know.
JASON: It would have to be something more like drivers. The speakers are still relatively heavy and bulky and big. Someone could figure how to make them smaller and light and still loud. That would be the time for a big deal.
That’s a task for our friends from Eminence in the USA.
For the gear freaks out there Dan Johnson took us on a guided tour of the stage explaining the backline equipment and Dan Auerbach’s setup.
DAN: We have the Thruster in the guitar rack with all the other pedals and a loop switcher remote control with MIDI. We also have the Triage because we have three amplifiers, all separated by the Triage, and each also going through the Palmer DIs.
The amps are a Marshall JTM 45, the original design, with an 8×10 cabinet, a Fender Quad Reverb with four12” speakers, and a Victoria which I believe is like two Fender Deluxes in one amplifier. The Victoria’s basically dry, the Fender has the reverb built in, and the Marshall has a little bit of slapback provided by the tape delay that’s in the back of the rack. We also have the Palmer power supply in there, various fuzz pedals and other things, tremolo, octave.
You’re also using a Speaker Simulator for the keyboard.
DAN: The keyboard player also plays guitar. He uses a vintage Silvertone amplifier with the Palmer DI mounted in the back. We have a Fender Bassman for the keyboards, that also has a PDI-09 in the back.
What are you using for the bass?
DAN: The bass rig’s vintage Sunn amplifiers. They’re a couple hundred watts apiece, I believe. On the bass pedalboard we have the Palmer PDI-CTC for a bass DI.
So you have a lot of Palmers everywhere!
DAN: Yeah, we love the Palmer products, and I’ll be happy to have more with my own rig!
Thanks very much for your time, and hope to see you again!