The Black Keys
The Ohio duo bursts some rock & roll myths.
Mon Jul 19 2010
For a yowling, sweaty rock & roll band, the Black Keys are remarkably restrained. The duo hasn’t created its own mythology in the tradition of ’60s garage-rock icons Question Mark and the Mysterians (or that other garage band, the White Stripes). And there’s apparently little in the way of Led Zep--style debauchery to its story, unless you count an incident in Northern England in which singer Dan Auerbach was attacked onstage by a middle-aged lady (“They were potato chip factory workers,” sighs Auerbach). The band’s reluctance to ham it up even extends to the point where Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney express relative indifference about Muscle Shoals, the legendary Alabama studio where they made their latest album, Brothers.
“It’s an oddly shaped box with rubber lining on the floor and cinder-block walls,” Carney shrugs. Recalling the band’s experience at the studio, he mentions crummy photocopies of Muscle Shoals vets like Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones tacked to the walls—which they immediately removed. “I mean, we had assembled all the equipment,” Carney says. “So even if it looked like a Holiday Inn conference center, we were gonna have to make a record there.”
Anyone looking for a sensational story may be disappointed. But there’s a realness to what the Black Keys do, along with a lack of pretension that sets them apart from pretty much every other act in Billboard’s top ten (Brothers entered the chart at No. 3). Lately, there’s also a sense of humor, noticeably via a grin-inducing series of music videos with a romping dinosaur puppet and Russ Meyer bikini girls.
That playfulness is also in the music. The Black Keys made their name in 2003, with their lean, muscular second album, Thickfreakness, but the songs on Brothers take in woozy psychedelia, soul and glam rock. That newfound freedom stems from the fact that the band has survived for nearly a decade. “At first I think we were both constantly nervous,” Carney says. “It all feels so fickle.” The pair saw bands like the Datsuns and Hot Hot Heat get huge, and wondered why they weren’t attracting that kind of attention. “But actually I think it was really good for us,” Carney says, “because when all that shit got thrown to the wayside, we managed somehow to not get lumped in with it.”
Expand they did, which is the other reason for the sonic diversity you’ll find on Brothers. On 2008’s Attack & Release, the duo teamed up with Danger Mouse; last fall the Black Keys spent a week recording with hip-hop stars, including GZA, Mos Def and Raekwon, for Damon Dash’s Blakroc project. Those sessions had a huge influence on Brothers, Auerbach’s singing in particular: “Being around those artists and watching them get into character—seeing how cool it was and how effortless it could be helped me loosen up a bit and just go for it.”
Accordingly, the album’s first track, “Everlasting Light,” has Auerbach singing in falsetto over deliciously heavy drums and romantically cooed shoo-waahs. That vocal was recorded in one take; the whole album took ten days. “If it was worth it to us for some reason, we probably could make a whole record next week if we wanted to,” Carney says, matter-of-factly. Are they happiest working fast? “I would feel like a dipshit if I just sat in a studio and ordered expensive meals and wasted everyone’s time,” Auerbach adds.
There is certainly something workmanlike and efficient about the band’s modus operandi, and the friendly but guarded way it tackles an interview. But the real secret to the Black Keys isn’t some saucy rock & roll fact, but rather that in private the pair goof around like kids. “We get paid to be children, basically,” Auerbach confirms. Having played together, in one way or another, since they were nine years old, both took on solo projects for the first time last year.
“Working with other people made us both realize how easy it is when we work together, how effortless it is,” Auerbach says. The album’s title was born partly from this discovery, and partly from one of the songs, “Unknown Brother,” which Auerbach wrote about his wife’s brother, who died of cancer at age 18. “We were talking about how horrible that must’ve been,” Auerbach says. “And Pat said, 'Why don’t we call the record Brothers?’ Like everything else on the record, it just happened naturally. It sums up the record and pretty much our career up to this point—that it’s all about the bond that Pat and I have, the unspoken connection and the shared vision. Do we feel lucky? Extremely.”
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