Photo: John Peets
Patrick Carney does not take the success of The Black Keys lightly.
On the surface, it appears that everything the 30-year-old drummer and his band mate, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, touch turns to gold. The Akron twosome, which has put Rubber City back on the musical map, has a do-it-yourself, blue-collar work ethic and they have become a true rock success story.
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the two have overcome music’s seamy business side. It is an industry which mass produces cookie-cutter bands and carefully markets them, where form is more important than content.
The Black Keys have grown their following and record sales organically through word-of-mouth and tirelessly synching their music, much like door-to-door salesmen. The result of all this work? Critical acclaim and well-deserved success.
“Our mission was and still is to be able to pay our rent playing music,” Carney said frankly. “We sent them (the record labels) an email saying ‘we are sending a demo. Please listen.’ They did, and signed us to a one record contract with no money up front.”
With the imminent release this month of their eighth studio album, Brothers, Carney and Auerbach are on their way to doing what no other Akron band has been able to do since the success of Devo, Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders – to sell a million records. So, whether they’re paying rent in their new environs in NYC or back home, the boys have done well and hope to continue.
“When you sell a million records of your first or second album, sometimes bands don’t realize it can go away as fast as it came. That kind of success is due to radio play, which we never had,” explained Carney. “If you can’t write another hit, you are back to square one playing to your core audience. If you never built a core audience you are basically back to the garage, I guess… a million-dollar garage.”
The Black Keys recorded the majority of Brothers in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with mixer Mark Neill over 10 days last August. O’Neill also mixed Auerbach’s solo record, Keep It Hid, and was key in setting up his custom analogue studio, Akron Analog, according to The Black Keys Fan Blog.
The first sneak preview of the new album comes by way of the song “Tighten Up,” which shows the band’s versatility to recreate itself, even in a short time frame. The song intros with the distinct whistling from Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” composition, backed up by Carney’s monster thump drumming and Auerbach’s soulful vocal offerings. Famed mega-star hip-hop and dance club producer Danger Mouse, who produced Attack and Release, produced the song, which was recorded at Brooklyn’s Bunker Studios.
The album also features a cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Other early notable songs include: “Next Girl,” considered a Zeppelin-type blast of fuzzed-out guitar, and “Howlin’ for You,” which features a “da da da” chant and a drum beat akin to Gary Glitter’s glam-rock classic “Rock and Roll (Part Two).” The band even released a 12″ single of “Howlin’ for You” on National Record Store Day (April 17).
Not one to divulge too much about the new album before its mid-month release, Carney is humble and basic in his assessment.
“We really just went into the studio and recorded whatever came out. It’s a pretty varied record but there is a common thread.” That common thread is a solid, tight, soulful and bluesy sound that the band has honed for nearly a decade.
“Dan and I grew up a lot as individuals and musicians prior to making this album,” Carney notes. “Our relationship was tested in many ways, but at the end of the day we’re brothers. I think these songs reflect that.”
“We like spooky sounds…like Alice Coltrane, where a dark groove is laid down. That’s the headspace we tried to get into for this record,” added Auerbach.
On The Black Keys’ Fan Site and Fan Lounge, Brothers mixer Mark O’Neill commented to the site’s blogger, a man simply known as Brucini, “Everything that you’ve read so far about this album, about it being heavy and dark, their best record yet, that’s not spin, that’s not jive, those were honest assessments from people who were involved.”
“The Black Keys are unique in their being brave enough to make a record that is this emotionally raw.”
Not one to take themselves, and their quick rise to fame, too seriously, Carney and Auerbach put together a makeshift video for “Tighten Up” to whet the appetites of fans. The video features a hand puppet dinosaur affectionately called Frank.
“Our label wanted to put a video up to tide people over while we finish the real video,” explains Carney. “We make them and then they never get played so the main role they play is to waste our money and entertain people who stumble across them on YouTube at 4 a.m.”
Carney adds that the band’s relationship with its label, Nonesuch Records, is wide open. They have carte blanche to do whatever they want. He adds with a degree of silliness, “We have a very sexual relationship with Nonesuch.”
Despite these accolades, Carney does not feel as though the band owns Akron or that they are the only worthwhile band in the area, but he knows what has worked for them.
“There have been lots of successful Ohio bands, and there currently are plenty of bands doing really well from Ohio,” he said. “We have worked really hard because we have a constant fear of failing and having to go back to work at Quonset Hut.”
The band’s first taste of success came fast with its debut album, The Big Come Up, on Alive Records in 2002. Recorded in Carney’s Akron basement on an eight-track recorder, the sound had a raw, classic blues-rock feel with a slight reverb, which added to the desolation of the lyrics in many of the cuts. The trademark stripped down guitar and drums worked in much the same way as the concept works for the White Stripes.
Carney’s uncle, Ralph Carney, an accomplished sax player who got his start with Tin Huey and went on to play with the likes of Tom Waits, B-52s, Elvis Costello, and most recently, They Might Be Giants, was a natural sounding board.
“He made me realize that being a musician was possible and every time I see him play I am blown away by how talented and creative he is,” credits the younger Carney. “Ralph is a rare breed. I wish I had 10 percent of his natural ability.”
While Carney gives credit to his uncle, it was a wider influence during his and Auerbach’s formative years – the local scene of rich history in alternative music – that spoke to the boys.
“Ralph lived in New York City and San Francisco for most of my childhood so my knowledge of local music came from my dad,” recalls Carney, who along with Auerbach graduated from Akron Firestone High School.
It is this diversity in musical influence that has contributed to the success of the band. Growing up in west Akron, the duo was into everything from Jimi Hendrix to Captain Beefheart, Devo, the Wu Tang Clan, early hip-hop and a multitude of blues players.
The Carney-produced album saw the release of the Keys’ first singles, “Leavin’ Trunk,” the fuzzy Beatles cover “She Said, She Said,” and the bluesy Johnny Lee Hooker-esque “I’ll Be Your Man.” The song became the theme song for the HBO series Hung.
The next year, the band headed back to the basement and came back up the stairs 14 hours later with Thickfreakness, recorded on Fat Possum Records, a label known for producing old-time blues artists. The sophomore release had the addition of Auerbach on bass for “Midnight in Her Eyes.” The album spawned more mainstream success for the Rubber City duo as the single “Set You Free” found its way onto the School of Rock movie soundtrack. Other singles “Hard Row” and the up-tempo classic “Have Love Will Travel” saw the boys flex some blues-punk muscle to the Sonics ‘60s classic.
The Moan, the duo’s third release and first full Keys EP, was a four-song recording done in 2004. The album was melting pot of blues and punk covers, as the title track “The Moan” was a cover originally done by T-Model Ford. Giving the album some punk attitude the Keys added their rendition of Iggy Pop’s “Fun Time.”
By now, the band was gaining a huge following, not just among fans, but with music critics everywhere. In 2004, the group’s third full-length studio effort Rubber Factory hit the streets. Things really began to kick into gear nationally. Recorded this time in an abandoned Akron factory, the album was replete with a heavy indie feel. Five songs from Rubber Factory were used in movies, commercials and video games, including music for the Black Snake Moan trailer, commercials for American Express, Sony Ericsson and Victoria’s Secret, movies Live Free or Die, The Go-Getter and Cloverfield, and the soundtrack for MLB ’06. The album even afforded the band its first late night TV appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, where Auerbach and Carney performed “Stack Shot Billy.”
2006 saw the beginning of what would be the first of three albums on Nonesuch Records. The band recorded its fourth, full-length album, Magic Potion, and by the time they released Attack and Release in 2008, the Keys had developed a large following from coast to coast. In fact, upon its debut, the album hit the Billboard Top 200 Albums at No 14.
The singles from the album were “Strange Times,” “I Got Mine,” and “Same Old Thing.” “I Got Mine” was voted the 23rd best song on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Songs of 2008. Other notoriety gained from songs on the album included “Lies” being used in episodes of Big Love, Lie to Me, and covered by Kelly Clarkson live on her All I Ever Wanted Tour. “So He Won’t Break” was featured on an episode of One Tree Hill.
While the band had been playing more abroad recently than on Akron soil, The Keys performed at the Akron Civic Theatre on October 17, 2008, sharing the stage with fellow Akronites Devo and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde at a benefit for then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
As a way of giving each other space and a chance to express other musical inclinations, Auerbach and Carney released separate albums last year. Auerbach’s 14-song Keep It Hid came out in February; Carney’s indie band, Drummer, released Feel Good Together in September.
In September, The Black Keys collaborated with a who’s-who of rap all-stars on Blakroc, a rap-rock album. The collaboration between The Black Keys and renowned MCs like RZA, Mos Def, Q-Tip and Raekwon gained crossover fans and peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Heatseeker albums.
Carney and Auerbach’s are now gearing up for their next tour, which has them sandwiching U.S. dates on either side of European stops in Belgium, the UK, France, Holland and Ireland. A Northeast Ohio date in July is scheduled as well on the band’s stateside return. On the U.S. slate, The Black Keys will be playing two nights in New York City on the summer stage and opening for Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden.
Did Carney ever think in his wildest dreams The Black Keys would reach this level?
“Not at all, but we could both be doctors by now if we enrolled in college the day our first record came out,” he joked.
And in these past eight years, The Black Keys have become successful soulful surgeons of blues-rock. The future is bright for these self-made stars who have put some bounce back into the Rubber City’s reputation.