TEN YEARS AGO YOU WOULDN’T HAVE PEGGED AKRON DUO THE BLACK KEYS TO BE A BAND CAPABLE OF FILLING ALEXANDRA PALACE TWICE OVER
A decade on from the rough recordings from an Akron basement, The Black Keys are a band dealing with the glare of black tux and red carpet award ceremonies; the mainstream multiplicity of licensing deals and the global reach of soundtracking the idle hours of millions of football-obsessed teens. This wasn’t the tipping point they were anticipating or expecting.
Firmly entrenched in an ethos of hard work and spontaneous simplicity, long-time friends and bandmates Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach are as genuine as they come; just two boys from the mid-west beating the hell out of their respective drumkit and guitar. After years of gruelling cross-country, cross-continent tours in cramped Buicks and a growing frustration of watching bands explode, burn out and fade away, The Black Keys have stood firm, played loud and proudly kept things true to the day two sixteen year old kids decided that they just wanted to make music.
“We’ve been doing this so long, we’ve just always had this natural connection,” explains Auerbach. “The first time we played music together when we were sixteen, seventeen, it was immediate. We didn’t have songs, Pat hardly played drums and I was just learning guitar, but we could make music and we could make stuff that sounded like music. It’s always been really easy with Pat, to play.
“I started playing because everyone in my family played music and I wanted to play with them. If The Black Keys didn’t exist, I’d be playing music. This is what I do. I love music and this is what I live for and I don’t understand any other way of thinking about it.”
Entrenched in the spirit of howling blues and feral garage rock, they’ve always been a band that emits a raw, simple power. Pat hits like a blacksmith, powerfully and purposefully precise as Dan coaxes a frontier wildness from his Harmony H77, stoking the guitar swarm with a preacherman bark. On record, they invigorate and enliven; on stage, they make every show feel like the inside of an atom, closing the walls and pinning you to them with an amplified intensity. And it’s this power, allied to a staunch set of values, that’s enabled Dan and Pat to tough out their slow build to success.
“We have a studio now but it’s still the same set up… it’s just Pat and I banging away on the drums and guitar, the same thing we’ve been doing since we were sixteen, although our tastes have changed and our points of view have changed. I think bands don’t have enough time to mature and grow as they used to be able to. Not that we’re The Beatles or anything but they didn’t start to get into their psychedelic, way-out-there stuff until how many records into it? Same with the Rolling Stones or whoever…most bands took a while to mature and it’s a good thing. I think you lose out on a lot of good stuff when you hype a band to death then turn your back on it, then it’s over for them.
“When we first started coming to London we realised the press in London hypes bands even more than the fucking Internet does. You know what I mean? It’s kind of ridiculous. And we’ve seen so many bands over the years come and go, bands that get on the covers of magazines and shit and we’d be like, “Why?!”. Then they’d get headline festival slots over here and we didn’t understand it, but over the years we’ve been so glad it wasn’t us. At the time it made us really angry but we look back now and we’re happy it wasn’t us. We were probably pissed off about it at the time because we’ve seen it happen. It’s unhealthy. Pat and I are from the mid-West so we don’t fuck around like that. We like to make music, we like to make records and we like to play shows. We’re not for that hype machine. We weren’t built for that.”
The hype machine never reached the critical levels for the band through the ‘The Big Come Up’ and ‘Thickfreakness’ releases but third album ‘Rubber Factory’ marked a subtle shift in the band’s status. Armed with the timeless ‘10AM Automatic’, the wailing ‘Girl is On My Mind’ and the squalling ‘Til I Get My Way’ it was never the stampede the album deserved but it made many sit up and take notice of Dan’s whiskey and razorblades vocal and The Black Keys’ intoxicating white boy blues. But where the following ‘Magic Potion’, ‘Attack and Release’ and the duo’s solo projects kept an honest momentum, it was ‘Brothers’ and more specifically the album’s ‘Tighten Up’ that fundamentally changed the perception of the band.
“Absolutely,” confirms Dan, “it changed everything! But I think mainly ‘Tighten Up’ changed stuff for us because it got played on the radio, and that was a big thing for us. It was something we’ve never experienced before and I don’t think any other song on ‘Brothers’ was playable on the radio, but because ‘Tighten Up’ got played, it opened the door for other songs, like ‘Howlin’ For You’ is on the radio in the States; ‘Next Girl’ is on the radio in Canada. Those are not traditional radio songs.
“I think it was a combination of things, really. It was the first time I’d written songs in that way. I wrote those songs around the same time I wrote the songs for my solo record and was thinking about songs in more of a classic songwriting sense and having a lot of fun with that and I’d never really done that before. I think with the first couple of records we were just kids messing around and I didn’t know how to write songs and we were just having fun. On ‘Brothers’ it was a different thing and it was really getting into the writing part. So there was that and using a really great engineer, Mark Neill, who engineered a lot of the record. It was weird because ‘Brothers’, tracking-wise, was really minimal compared to ‘Attack and Release’. That was way more pro but ‘Brothers’ came out sounding bigger.”
‘Brothers’ didn’t just sound “bigger” it sounded almost alien. The Black Keys were supposed to be raw and rooted in bristling porch blues and primal garage rock and here they were working with Dangermouse, buffing up the process instead of scuffing it; polishing the edges instead of making them more pointed. Conversely, it wasn’t a total departure from what preceded, just an unexpectedly layered offering given an extra dimension by taking the production process outside of the duo.
“We were in Muscle Shoals for ten days, recorded ten songs, we were at my studio in Akron for four days and did a couple of songs, then we did ‘Tighten Up’ in two days in Brooklyn and pulled the album together and it was a record. We spent less money than probably any major label band; Pat’s brother did all the artwork, as he always has done. Nothing really changed except the process was longer, but that was mainly because we were on tour and we were working with Brian [Dangermouse] and he was working on the U2 record so he’d have to fly out and fly in, then we’d be on tour. It took about a month because it wasn’t consecutive and it felt like forever. I think it’s good to hunker down and get into a groove and we got disrupted a bunch making the record but we’ll take it how we can get it.”
For a band that has spent most of their career earnestly “trying to make rent” the opportunities to go beyond basic sustenance were few and far between. Accused of “selling out” courtesy of licensing songs for use in various adverts and soundtracks, it’s a backlash The Black Keys have had to deal with in light of their growing mainstream success. From Nissan to Sony, Levis to Victoria’s Secret, the revenue has been a lifeblood for the band and it’s not an issue Dan is prepared to shirk and shy away from.
“I don’t know what to say to those guys. Pat and I have worked harder than any band we know of; we’ve driven more miles across the country in stupid fucking Sprinter vans, across Europe all winter, over and over and over again. To call us ‘sell outs’ would be sort of ridiculous. We turned down around $100,000 for a mayonnaise ad for a company in England because we didn’t want to be sell outs when we were about twenty two, twenty-three, meanwhile we’re driving a Buick Sentry across the country with the amps and drums filling the trunk, stopping us from reclining the seats, on 11 hour drives to play little clubs. We turned down that money which was more than our parents would make in a year, combined, and that felt stupid. After we turned it down, we just said we’d never do it again because it was so stupid. That whole sell-out mentality is absolute garbage. Nowadays where records don’t sell, it’s the only way to make a living. How do you make a living from music?
“We never sold a lot of records and we’ve still not hit a million in America. We had the number one single for sixteen weeks straight! Man, if you had the number one record in 1985 for sixteen weeks straight, you’d have a platinum record. You’d own your own island next to Richard Branson! It’s pathetic, the record industry.
“We had a hit record and our entire team at Warner Brothers got fired [laughs disbelievingly] because of downsizing. It’s crazy. The only way Pat and I make a living is playing shows, which means we have to be on the road constantly. Basically, getting licensing money is amazing, it helps so much and enables us to stay off the road for a little while and enjoy a bit of life, which is nice.
“And I think it’s awesome when we hear our music on a movie or a TV show or an advertisement and we get paid for something that we created in a basement for almost nothing when we were 20 years old. I love that. There’s a TV show called Hung over in the States, which is about a male prostitute, and it’s kinda big and they use one of our songs. But it’s weird that this is the only art form where this situation happens. Every actor on the face of the earth has watch ads in Japan or aftershave ads somewhere and they don’t get shit for this at all. Who created this?!”
There’s a fierce sense of pride and self-awareness and self-sufficiency that’s palpable in almost everything The Black Keys have done. To them, it’s more than the fact they feel they’ve earned the right as much as anyone, there’s a frustration that they needlessly compromised on some unfounded values. For them, the austerity of the early days still rings responsibly true and just because they’re in a privileged opportunity to take advantage it doesn’t mean that they’re prepared to exploit the big budgets that may or may not come their way.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on being cost efficient. We’ve never had a big budget to make a record and we’ve heard so many stories about bands with a million dollars to make a record. We like to get in and get out because this comes out of our own pocket – we’re not stupid. I had a friend who used to manage a band called Be Your Own Pet, remember them? They were kind of like an ‘It’ band for a while, a real cute girl singer and they were young. They’re gone now but they had $350,000 recording budgets for each record! It’s insane.”
With new album ‘El Camino’ – the band’s seventh – the driving decade marker for the band, for all the awards, backlash and the belated recognition, The Black Keys’ tenacity and level-headedness is finally paying off. Perhaps it’s the maturity they’ve been allowed to develop over the years, learning quickly from missed opportunities or the unyielding commitment of Pat and Dan to see it all through. Whatever the secret, The Black Keys are still as uncompromising and inimitable as they were back in that basement.
“We just want to make a good record and have fun doing it, that’s all we’ve ever wanted to do. There’s no other plan. We met people in LA who write songs, pop hits, and are rich but it just seems miserable. We’ve seen so many talented bands ride and fade away and never given the chance to even release a record. We’re not trying to be the best at guitar and drums, we’re just trying to make music that’s interesting, you know? The music that’s not polished and it’s not perfect and we’ve gotten lucky. It’s a combination of three things: luck, timing and hard work. There’s no other way to explain it.”
By Reef Younis
Originally published in issue 33 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2011.