By Mark Guarino
White people have been playing the blues for such a long time now that there could be a golf course and a Starbucks at Robert Johnson’s crossroads. The fanny pack crowd dominating most blues festivals see the music as a brand representing certain things: obnoxiously executed guitar solos, good-time beats and standards like “Sweet Home Chicago” bled dry of their inspiration and lacquered over as jingles.
Blues music is in ruins, some people say. One of those people is Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. “Oh, it’s horrible. It’s so bad,” he said. “To set out and play blues music and say ‘I play blues music’ I think is a big waste of time and is generally not anything I would ever want to listen to.”
It is strange to hear Auerbach grumble about a genre many say is exactly what he and his musical partner Patrick Carney play. The Black Keys are one of many young, restless white bands in recent years that have unplugged the blues from the tourist coma it’s suffered under and dragged it from behind the malls to back through the rubble of empty lots, the screaming industrial noise of factory floors and the dark sludge of mud-packed swamps. Maybe it’s because they’re both in their middle twenties and are tucked away in a marginalized city like Akron, Ohio, but both players have no tradition to respect. The raucous and raw music they play holds nothing sacred except a grab at transcendence and a disdain of normalcy. The songs are loud, but they are short. The drumming is cubist, the singing sounds ancient, the guitar is fingerpicked, notes bend into swirling psychedelic moods. If this is the blues, it arrives chopped in a blender and made thick for pouring.
In the 1970’s bands known as Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers were forerunners for warping the blues with a yowl, but it’s unfair to say the Black Keys are anything like either. The primary reason is because the Black Keys is a band of two people and — counting the interchange of groupies, family members and hangers-on — both the classic rock enterprises are as big as blimps.
But if there is a glimmer of hoary, hippie, hedonistic rock in the Black Keys, it’s news to them. “On our first tour I brought Led Zeppelin II and Dan was like, ‘what the fuck is this?’,” said Carney.
It’s true. Auerbach was never hit over the head by the hammer of the gods. Now he receives emails from the most golden of gods: Robert Plant is a fan. Things are not predictable or planned in the Black Keys universe and in fact, the progression of this band seems to work in reverse. Although Auerbach, 27, and Carney, 26, grew up around the block from one another, they never considered themselves friends. Playing together was more out of convenience than chemistry.
Even forming a band was a coincidence. Dropping out of different colleges, they both started noticing each other moping around town wondering what to do next. Then they ended up working for the same landscaper mowing lawns. They quit that job together. Many years later, they realized an invisible hand was pushing them together.
“We’re kind of like brothers. We care for each other and would pretty much do anything for each other,” said Auerbach.
Carney seconds: “I’ll tell you it’s easier for me to play music with Dan than anybody else. When Dan I first started playing we weren’t friends. Now he’s my best friend. I would say I talk to him than anyone else.”
Musical partnerships are not easy to find anymore in Akron, known as the rubber capitol of the world, a city where neighborhoods are named after the tire behemoths Goodyear (Goodyear Heights) and Firestone (Firestone Park). Radials ruled Auerbach and Carney’s early life. They both attended Harvey S. Firestone High School and grew up on the city’s west side where rubber mill smoke from the east frequently floated overhead.
“We’re a depressed little city,” said Danny Basone, owner of the Lime Spider, Akron’s only indie rock club where the Black Keys played their first shows. “Back in the 1970’s, there were rubber working families working so many hours, the kids were bored. So there was band history coming out of here. There was just a buzz for awhile, just a good melting pot of bands.”
Devo got the ball rolling and soon, label scouts were convinced Akron was ground zero for idiosyncratic pop in the early days of punk.
“I think it was all the rubber dust we inhaled,” said Ralph Carney whose band Tin Huey got swept up in the fervor, landing at Warner Bros. in 1979 and getting subsequently ignored. “I think there are similar scenes in many industrial towns like Detroit but in Akron, there definitely was an unusual amount of weird bands. When you’re in a place like Akron, you make up your own reality of what you want to play.”
But like most scenes that get picked over, Akron once again became flyover country to the fickle coastal music industry. It didn’t help that a rust belt decline cut the rubber industry in half. “In the mid-80’s, (Akron) kind of took a dive,” said Basone. Carney, who moved to New York and then San Francisco, rebounded as a long-standing sideman for Tom Waits among others. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when his teenage nephew Patrick started sending him homemade cassettes that he realized Akron’s blend of left field rock did not disappear but was instead being passed to a new generation.
“They were hilarious cassettes. Like, really cheap guitars. Noisy guitars and drums. My two favorite songs were ‘I’ve Got Monkeys In My Bathtub’ and ‘Chinese Noodles’. I was like, ‘this guy’s a genius’,” he said.
Patrick prowled pawnshops with his uncle to search for used instruments and, along the way, pick up some advice. “It was totally great. I remember thinking ‘this guy is into the weird.’ I played him wacky children’s records from the ‘60’s, turned him onto The Shags. Stuff that was primitive, not trying to be weird but just is. Outsider music,” Uncle Ralph said.
Auerbach and Carney understood outsiders. After high school, Auerbach attended Mount Union College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, and dropped out (“worst decision I made in my life — there wasn’t even record shop,” he said) and Carney attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (“a ‘draw the turtle’ school,” he said) and did the same. They both returned home, enrolled at Akron University and then — well, just guess.
“Between the both of us, we have four years of school,” Carney said.
Back in town and living around the corner from one another, their musical aspirations drifted in the same direction. Auerbach played guitar since he was 15, the same age Carney bought a drum kit with money earned as a dishwasher. One day they got together to play just for fun. But once they started playing they realized it was more than an energy release. “It just clicked,” said Auerbach. “It was strange. We didn’t know each other, we hadn’t played before, but it worked.”
Both the harmonica player and keyboardist who played those early jam sessions in Carney’s basement never returned so it was left up to the guitarist and drummer to make a band. They immediately found jobs mowing lawns for a local landlord and soon they worked twice a week and played together all seven. In what may be a first in any musician’s life story, the occupational shift was blessed by both sets of parents. Auerbach’s father, a folk art collector obsessed with country blues, and his mother, a French teacher, went so far as to tell their son he needed to give up school permanently because he was wasting their money.
Of the two, Auerbach was hooked on the country blues. He listened to early Fat Possum compilations and combed through his father’s record collection that filed Son House and Robert Johnson alongside the Grateful Dead and Allmans. Once he followed his father to northern Mississippi towns where they scoured for folk art by day and hunted for Junior Kimbrough at night. Kimbrough, a local juke joint owner who died in 1998 at age 67, recorded for Fat Possum in the early 1990’s. His music was brutally intense in all respects: lyrics, production, playing.
“People classify him as blues but I don’t think he was blues at all. He was like me, he was influenced by blues but he was definitely doing his own thing. He played this weird, one-chord, droney, North Mississippi psychedelic soul music,” said Auerbach. “I love that shit.”
Carney was hooked into the classic rockers of the 1970’s whose super-sized translation of the blues is more tailored for sports stadiums than a Delta front porch. “There’s a lot of blues I do like — it’s the blues music that people who like blues music hate. Like (the Muddy Waters’ derided 1968 psychedelic album) Electric Mud,” he said. “I like reinterpreted blues than the real thing. I like an artificial banana than a real banana. Maybe with age I’ll start to appreciate the real stuff more. But everyone likes artificial bananas when they’re a kid.”
The Black Keys became the Black Keys thanks to a schizophrenic friend of both sets of parents. Carney’s father — a writer for the Akron Beacon Journal — was donating paper so he could make art and Auerbach’s father was helping him sell it. Not that it mattered. Late night phone calls from their shared charity case yielded accusations and insults, one worth remembering. If he felt he was getting a brush-off, Carney said, his comeback was to call you a black key.
Between 2002 and 2004, the Black Keys left the basement and walked up to a world that seemed to be waiting for them. “They got a buzz real quick. Good chemistry, good band. But it was kind of weird it took off so quick,” said Bansone.
In three years, the Auerbach and Carney released three critically-lauded albums, toured the world, met their heroes, opened for headliners from Sleater-Kinney to Beck and went from playing to a handful of people to major rock festivals across the globe. For Auerbach, the sudden launch was not intended. He was listening to a lot of one-man bands and considered this basement project would just be a homemade extension of that insular way of doing music, interesting to no one but a small circle. “We weren’t getting together to go onstage. That wasn’t our thought. It wasn’t until we got a record deal that we thought ‘maybe we should play live onstage in front of people’.”
Timing was on their side. With rap metal losing its bark, the media climate was primed to laud a new line-up of bands that did not wear red baseball caps or rubber masks and whose live shows did not schedule stage time for midgets or strippers. Instead of KISS and Meatloaf, these new bands identified more with the less pretentious and rougher era of garage rock bands, a scene that was still flickering in gray-streaked industrial towns, Detroit in particular.
The public was invited to the “return of rock” but when rock returned, the same inanities cropped up. Whether it’s Insane Clown Posse or the Mooney Suzuki, gimmick bands have a tendency to crowd the room.
“We were being lumped into a scene we felt no connection to,” said Auerbach. “We didn’t know any of those people. It was ‘Detroit this’ and ‘Detroit that’ … I’m glad it’s finally kind of over. I feel bad for some of those bands that were hyped and are now label-less and kind of bitter, I guess. It’s not good to be part of a scene willingly.”
The Black Keys began receiving inevitable comparisons to another band featuring only guitar and drums. On their recent six-city tour with Radiohead, Carney received this advice from Jonny Greenwood: “if we wore costumes, we’d be bigger than the White Stripes.”
“I guess there were similarities in that scene. But at the same time we weren’t trying to be a throwback band. We weren’t trying to sound like a 1966 Detroit garage rock band. We listened to that type of music but had a broader image of ourselves,” he said.
Ultimately, “by us being lumped into the blues thing than the garage rock thing probably helped us out. A lot of those bands don’t exist anymore. At the same time I do have to say Dan I worked harder than most bands.”
That hard work also had a hand in almost finishing the band just as it was getting started. It has now been about two years since the last Black Keys album and while that is not unusual, it is a dramatic shift for a band that rattled off three albums in three years.
The slowdown comes from a brutal touring schedule and its eventual aftermath, which led to switching the way they do business. “We hit the fan,” Carney said. After touring continually for a year and a half, with reportedly included only two-week breaks to unwind, Carney and Auerbach went on strike after nearly losing their marbles during a European tour in 2004. The details remain hazy but Auerbach remembers driving ten miles between towns during the dead of winter in a van with a crew of three who were crabby, smelly and depressed.
“It was really fucking awful. We came back and I didn’t think I would ever go on tour again. We canceled (an upcoming) tour and we basically had to regroup. Around that time things got a lot better,” Carney said.
The band established new rules that allowed for girlfriends, family, banging out music in the basement again and slumming around Akron just for kicks. To set their new directive in stone, they fired their manager and signed with Q Prime, making them unlikely peers with Metallica and Shania Twain. At this time, their three-album deal with Fat Possum was up, so they decided to find a new home for their music, too. Although they insist their departure was amicable (Fat Possum continues to help distribute Audio Eagle, Carney’s side label), both Carney and Auerbach say they felt they outgrew their humble beginnings.
“(Fat Possum has) North America on lockdown but they didn’t have … as much push, especially in Europe and in Australia,” Auerbach said. Once news spread and every major label phoned, Auerbach and Carney made each suitor fly to Akron where they ate for free for three weeks. Although from the beginning they knew they would sign to Nonesuch — the most eclectic subsidiary of Warner Brothers, home to Wilco, Randy Newman, Bill Frisell and Ali Farka Toure among others — the meal train kept running as a kind of social experiment. “A lot of the labels are fucking bullshit artists. Most of them where there because other labels were there,” Carney said.
In the end, the Black Keys signed to three labels: Nonesuch in North America, V2 in Europe and Modular in Australia.
Magic Potion, their fourth album, is the result of the chaos. It is an album that is heavier and definitely sexier than their last efforts, but also much more troubled. “Why can’t trouble find a new friend/’cause this can’t be the way the story ends,” Auerbach howls (“Just A Little Heat”). Of thinking about what to write about, he said he “didn’t have to look too far.” In addition to relationship difficulty and the war, a childhood friend died while giving birth along with her newborn. “Fucking horrible,” he said. “It can leave you questioning things, life in general. What we’re put here to do.”
There is the expectation that when bands sign to multinational record labels that they are to immediately enlist the Matrix to get them on the radio, record a lavish new record in a rented chateau in Southern France and release it with great fanfare by playing atop a flatbed semi-trailer in midtown Manhattan.
The Black Keys returned to the basement. No one followed. Magic Potion is the result of Auerbach strolling over to Carney’s house in the early afternoon last winter, recording for a few hours and then walking back home before dinner. They set levels by playing each other’s instruments, overdubbed just the vocals, and didn’t let anyone hear it until it was finished. Part of the appeal was aesthetics — its toughness comes from that feeling you’re stuck in an elevator with the band and they’re blocking the door. But the main reason for sticking close to home was to ensure the normalcy of the outside world didn’t come knocking. Although the band didn’t have to wait until they were eligible for AARP membership to get their music heard, like many of their Fat Possum heroes, they did understand that making music in the same place they live a life is what keeps their music from sounding desperate and cold.
“I think recording is the most fun part of writing an album. I would never want to pay somebody to have all the fun,” Carney said. Unlike the Fat Possum records that were recorded to tape, Magic Potion was recorded straight to computer using Pro Tools. The pair engineered, mixed and produced it themselves, went to Cleveland for the mastering and Carney’s brother did the artwork.
“It’s just the sort of thing we like to do. I couldn’t really understand taking all that time making music and then giving it to someone else,” said Auerbach. “I think people appreciate we make music and we do it our own way.”
Any random Black Keys show will illustrate that homespun appeal is universal. Unlike most bands, their audience is much like the crowd at any international airport: no one looks the same.
John Szymanski of the Detroit psychedelic punk band SSM, remembers a tour opening for the band and being asked to come onstage to sing “Happy Birthday” for Auerbach. “The look on people’s faces was unbelievable. They were so into it. They didn’t seem like a real rocker audience. There were blues enthusiasts, college kids, you had hipsters. Just a real mix of people,” he said.
“I like the fact our audience is so diverse. If you find yourself playing mostly to 18-year-olds, eventually those 18-year-olds will discover beer and will stop listening to your band,” said Carney.
These days their partnership comes with many rewards — “my expectations for the band were surpassed in 2002,” Carney said — the difference is that now, they are in charge and setting the rules. Including this one, from Carney: “the minute we start making music that sounds like Eric Clapton, we’ll kill ourselves and stop.”