The term “passion project” gets tossed around a lot, but in the case of The Arcs—the indie supergroup led by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Leon Michels of El Michels Affair—that descriptor couldn’t be more fitting.
After getting together in 2015, The Arcs released just one album: Yours, Dreamily, a loose, soul-inspired record that felt like five music-obsessed friends nerding out and noodling around in the studio (which is exactly what it was). Now, they’re back with the long-awaited follow-up, Electrophonic Chronic, but with one caveat: It’s their first release since the death of multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift, who died in 2018 of complications from alcoholism.
At first glance, it might have seemed like the rest of the band—Auerbach, Michels, Homer Steinweiss, and Nick Movshon—got together after Swift’s death to record a new album. Instead, Electrophonic Chronic is a collection of unreleased vintage soul, garage rock, and space-age pop tracks largely recorded with Swift prior to his death. Auerbach and Michels dusted off the songs after they’d been shelved for years. And it’s a testament to the band’s timeless approach to music—these are not guys who are interested in chasing popular trends—that the album is as captivating and fresh-sounding as it is. And not only is it a nice surprise for fans who’d wondered if The Arcs were just a one-off side act, but it’s also a way for the band to, as Auerbach and Michels put it, “close the loop” on their time with Swift.
“None of these [songs] were made in tribute to Richard; they just sort of became a tribute to Richard after he passed away,” Auerbach tells The Daily Beast in Los Angeles. “The meaning of all the songs kind of changed. And that is also probably what helped us finish these songs. Having Richard leave gave us even more drive to want to finish it. Because we really didn’t get to say goodbye to him. This became a way that we were able to do that. We kind of had to finish it.”
When the five members of The Arcs started playing together in 2015, it was clear they’d stumbled upon something special.
“Honestly, it’s like five complete studio rats,” Auerbach says about their dynamic. “Everyone’s producing in the group, so anytime you want to step back, there are four other people who are perfectly capable of running the ship. It’s just non-stop flowing, people getting in and out of the way. You’re constantly checking on each other’s stuff, pushing each other to be better all the time, having fun, laughing about shit, making fun of each other. It really just greases the wheels in every way.”
Michels agrees, remembering how they made their first album in a “mad rush” because it “felt so good that it was almost like it was gonna go away.” After making enough songs for Yours, Dreamily, they just kept going, eventually amassing over 100 songs. It felt like capturing lightning in a bottle, and in a way, it was. The Arcs toured in 2016 and kept on recording together in between shows, but eventually retreated to their other various bands and solo projects, putting this particular passion project on pause. Then, in June 2018, Swift entered hospice care in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. He died the following month at age 41, with his family attributing his death to a long battle with alcohol addiction.
Along with releasing seven of his own solo albums, Swift had been a touring member of The Black Keys, Wilco, and The Shins, and had contributed to records by Sharon Van Etten and Ray LaMontagne. He was a total musician’s musician, and a blast to be in a band with, according to Auerbach and Michels.
“Hilarious. Just hilarious. Funniest person I’ve ever met, by a lot,” is how Auerbach remembers him. “Also crazy talented; could play any instrument and play it well. He was like a one-man production team. He didn’t need anybody else. He would do all the engineering and all the playing and just crush.”
“And all the art,” Michels adds. “The thing that I remember is that everything he did was art.”
Auerbach agrees: “Everything was art all the time. We’d be staying in a hotel and he had those funny screwdrivers that could take off the hotel screws. And he would take the pieces of art off the wall and he’d draw his own art behind it and then put the painting back on over it. He did that almost every night, all across Europe.”
“Being on the road, those tours were just fun,” Michels says. “Until it wasn’t fun. There were definitely very serious moments.”
Shortly before his death, Swift had released his final solo album, The Hex, which was “steeped in a milieu of devastating loss, grief, crippling depression, anxiety and alcoholism,” as a press release stated at the time. When Swift’s wife came to Auerbach’s studio in Nashville to play him the album, “it was really hard,” the guitarist recalls.
“You could hear how much he was tormented. It was just kind of brutal,” he says. “It’s just like the way that time has changed the perception of the Arcs songs. Those Swift songs for me… it’s been pretty substantial. It’s a new experience for me.”
Not quite as brutal was the time when, in a fit of pandemic boredom, Auerbach opened an old file of Arcs songs and started sharing them with Michels.
“A few years had gone by after Richard passed away and I slowly started randomly sending songs from the Dropbox,” Auerbach remembers. “Like, ‘Oh, check this out, haven’t heard this in six years. Listen to this, this thing’s almost done.’ You know, ‘Why did we put this dumb thing on here? If we took this off, it would be finished.’ That kind of thing.”
Eventually, Michels says, they decided, “All right, fuck it, let’s just finish this record.” He flew to Auerbach’s studio in Nashville and the two got to work putting the finishing touches on a handful of tracks, some of which date back to those first Arcs sessions in 2015 and either didn’t make the cut for the first record or just weren’t right at the time.
“Some of these songs, it took us this long to be able to finish them, at some distance, to have some perspective,” Auerbach explains. He points to “Behind the Eyes” as one of the first songs the band ever recorded together. Then there was “Heaven Is a Place,” which Michels says “took for-fucking-ever. We just kept throwing things at it and it wasn’t quite right. And then, you know, we waited seven years and all of a sudden, that song just made sense.”
Not only was it satisfying to crack those years-long musical puzzles, but it also gave the guys a chance to hear Swift back in his element, doing what he did best and (literally) drumming up happier memories of their time with him.
“I think what we had with The Arcs was really this very joyful thing. Because it was just friends in the studio, having fun,” Michels says. “And then the stuff he did, like [The Hex], is very heavy. That record is pretty, pretty dark.”
Electrophonic Chronic, on the other hand, is a little brighter, a little looser. It’s not without its melancholia (as Auerbach succinctly notes, “We like sad songs with a happy beat”), but it’s playful and fluid and confident; a result of doing what they wanted and chucking the rulebook out the window. Like Yours, Dreamily, it draws on the band’s fondness for crate-digging, capturing the ease of some friends tinkering around in the studio and trying new things. Take, for example, “A Man Will Do Wrong,” a gender-swapped version of Helene Smith’s 1967 soul classic “A Woman Will Do Wrong.”
“I don’t think we would have ever put a cover on the first record. So then when we came back to it, this record was definitely more like, there’s no rules, no expectations, or any of that. Just whatever we want,” Michels says.
Similarly spontaneous was “Backstage Mess,” which originated as a voice memo and maintains some of that non-polished aplomb on the album—so much so that it feels like you’re in the room with them.
“That one is actually maybe the closest thing to a tribute to Swift, because we used to do that kind of stuff—you know, Dan playing guitar, and then we’d do like, cracked-out doo-wop,” Michels says of “Backstage Mess.” “That was just a voicemail I had on my phone of the three of us doing that, and then we just built a song around it.”
Elsewhere, they skate between Memphis soul on “River,” breezy Motown on “Sunshine,” and psychedelia on “Heaven Is a Place,” something of a spacey eulogy released alongside a video depicting an animated Swift rolling through the clouds in a white Cadillac. “That would be the preferred car for the cloud,” Auerbach smiles.
The album’s eclectic nature has struck a chord, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Albums Chart. Even so, Auerbach and Michels are hesitant to mull over the future of The Arcs. They opted to celebrate the new release with a series of casual DJ sets in New York, L.A., Paris, and London, converting tiny, cramped rooms into “straight-up dance parties” as they spun records into the early morning. Auerbach notes “there’s dozens and dozens” more songs in the hard drive, but they “have no idea” whether they’ll ever be released.
“There definitely is music, but we have no plans to work on it. No plans to tour,” he says.
That’s fair enough; with Electrophonic Chronic, The Arcs have improbably managed to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Pretty good for five studio rats’ passion project.