IN the back of a huge, gleaming tour bus, The Black Keys’s drummer Patrick Carney is nostalgic for the bad old days.
“When you travel to gigs in little, beaten-up vans, you see a lot of the city you are playing in. The venues are always in the middle of town. You can get out, walk around. Nowadays, it’s arenas, so you don’t experience so much of wherever it is you are. Things are more anonymous.”
Still, for the first eight years of the band, Carney and Dan Auerbach slept in flea-pit motels, travelled in leaky station wagons, and headlined pokey venues. It wasn’t glamorous. “We’ve been there, done that,” says Carney. “The way things are now, it’s a lot more relaxing. At first, doing really big rooms was intimidating. Now, we’re starting to enjoy it.”
The Black Keys are unlikely super-stars. Their gut-bucket sound, a mixture of the White Stripes and Led Zeppelin, is catchy but unglamorous. Neither musician looks like a rock idol. Carney is bespectacled and gawky, Auerbach unshaven and monosyllabic. Their last two albums have topped the charts globally. They’re on their way to the O2.
“We get asked a lot about ‘selling out’,” says Carney. “There’s no single, simple definition of what that is. It’s different for everybody. For some people, staying true to your principles means not being on a major label. For others, it’s not having your song on radio.”
The Black Keys’s definition is different. “It’s about making music on your own terms. As soon as you start trying to change, to be accepted — as soon as you compromise at all — you’re selling out.”
Carney and Auerbach have received flack for licensing their music to advertisers and television. Several songs off their 2010 album, Brothers, became hits on the back of commercials. Purists jeered. The Black Keys shrugged. “More and more bands are letting their stuff be used,” says Carney. “It’s good this is happening. Because it lets bands stay around longer. With the money, they don’t have to spend months on end touring, eating badly, becoming frustrated. They make enough to live off, and maybe have enough left over to record an album.”
The Black Keys learned the hard way. When they were broke, a UK advertiser offered $100,000 for the use of one of their songs. Fearing a backlash from their contemporaries, they said no. They’ve regretted the decision ever since. “We came around to a different way of thinking,” says Carney. “For a long time, we were actually the only band that agreed to do commercials. That is no longer the case. Ironically, the more popular we become, the less advertising offers we get. On our latest album, most of the licensing has been for movies and TV shows.”
The new LP, El Camino, is remarkably catchy. Coming off Brothers, their first major hit, The Black Keys could have garnered hipster kudos by lashing out against success. It’s a trusted strategy for alternative acts embarrassed by mainstream popularity. For Auerbach and Carney, that would have been a cliché too far.
“El Camino is a strange record,” says the drummer. “It’s the fastest, most upbeat we’ve done. Whenever an act has mainstream cross-over, it seems the gut reaction is to do something different in order to maintain your indie cred. In our minds, once a song has gone on the radio, you’ve waved goodbye to indie credibility. So why bother about it?”
Besides, it isn’t as if they were actively pandering. “Making El Camino, the only people in the studio were Dan and me, Danger Mouse, our producer, and the engineer, who is a friend of ours. There was no outside interference. We’re not really too concerned about how we are perceived. We know what we’ve gone through this past ten years,” he says.
Carney and Auerbach grew up in Akron, Ohio. Friends since high school, they formed The Black Keys in 2001. Financial necessity kept them on the road nine or ten months of the year. There was a personal cost. In Mar 2011, Carney’s then wife wrote a piece for the Salon website describing how she had cheated on him out of loneliness. The marriage broke up.
The drummer’s heartache is writ large across Brothers. On the song Next Girl, Auerbach channels his friend’s pain. “Oh, my next girl,” he caterwauls movingly, “will be nothing like my ex girl ...” The story has a happy ending. Several weeks ago, Carney announced his engagement to his new girlfriend. He proposed hours before he and Auerbach performed at the Grammys.
“It’s difficult maintaining a relationship with a musician,” says Carney. “All the travelling. all the being away, it’s a lot to deal with. That said, the entire time I’ve played in The Black Keys, I think I’ve only been single for, basically, a month or two. I’m a serial monogamist.”
Carney and Auberach have had their ups-and-downs, too. In 2009, the guitarist recorded a solo album, Keep It Hid. It was a medium-sized hit. Carney was unhappy his friend felt the need to step outside The Black Keys. “That experience ended up being a really good thing for us to go through,” he says. “It made us stronger. There was tension between us, for a number of reasons. It was difficult. Now, I would say things are better than ever.”
Carney and Auberbach are self-confessed workaholics. When not playing with The Black Keys, they are producing other artists. This year, Carney has collaborated with the indie husband-and-wife duo, Tennis, while Auberbach has overseen records by Dr John, and Jessica Lea Mayfield.
“I’m actually trying to slow down,” says Carney. “We’ve both worked on three or four albums by other people in the past year. It’s too much, to be honest. Coming home from tour, maybe it’s not the best to go straight back into the studio.
“I’m trying to get to a situation where I can enjoy life.”
* The Black Keys play the O2 in Dublin tomorrow.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved