Interview with The Black Keys

The first time I heard the gritty blast of raw power that is the Black Keys, the Akron, Ohio, pair were playing at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, as the opening act. On this cold November night, as I made my way into the club, a scruffy doorman stopped me to find out which band I was there to see. He scratched another line in the Black Keys’ column, for a grand total of four people.

By May of this year, only six months later, bandmates Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were the headliners, playing to a packed house in Cambridge, Mass. In the smoke and sweat of the standing-room-only space, Auerbach told the crowd, “It feels good in here. It feels hot in here.”

During less than two-years together, the Black Keys have been cementing a solid fan base by winning over crowds with their non-stop touring. You may not have heard of them yet, but they won’t be a secret for long. Sleater-Kinney liked what they heard and asked the boys to open for them on their last tour. Now the Keys are opening for Beck during his summer Sea Change tour. “The first big shows were weird for me,” Carney said, “But I am getting use to it. Dan adjusted quicker than me.” The band’s second album, Thickfreakness, released April 8th, will put them on the map as the real deal — a heavy blues-rock duo that cuts to the bone and leaves you wanting more.

At first glance, with their suburban Midwest looks and youthful shyness, this dynamic duo may not look like they can play the blues, but they have enough soul for everybody in the room. Their influences include Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and R.L. Burnside, and they give the blues a much-needed shot in the arm. Like their mentors, these garage-jammin’ musicians deliver stripped-down blues, getting back to the basics and keeping it real — real simple. “That’s our motto,” says Auerbach, swiping his shaggy hair out of his eyes, “always try and keep it simple — the drums, the guitar line.”

Auerbach, who’s on “triplofonic” guitar and vocals, is one of those rare singers whose earthy, raucous voice sounds much older than one would expect from a 23-year-old. His guitar work, exceedingly accomplished and spirited, makes you feel like he was born holding a Telecaster. His partner, the talented, gangly, bespectacled Carney, pounds on a “broke beat kit” like it just stole his lunch money. Get over any prejudices you may have against the two-piece band thing and get to what they are about: Two extraordinarily talented musicians who mean what they play and play very mean.

“We started playing together at 15,” Carney said. “But we didn’t do our first show until the last day of March [2002].” It was in high school that Auerbach and Carney developed a friendship that involved playing music. Carney had a habit of spending all his money on recording equipment, so the boys would get together in every spare moment to practice in Carney’s basement.

In fact, both Thickfreakness and their first album, The Big Come Up, were recorded in Carney’s basement, using his patented recording technique, which he jokingly calls “medium-fidelity.” With Thickfreakness, they laid down the tracks in one non-stop 14-hour session and mixed the album in just a few days. The Black Keys like their no-nonsense formula. They record and produce their albums by themselves, without any tinkering from outsiders. When they tried to record during some studio time in California, the results were less successful. In fact, the boys signed with Fat Possum Records for the second album because of the hands-off approach the label is known for.

“We wanted to sign with someone who will let us do our thing. We like the way that the first album came out.” says Auerbach. “Fat Possum was the best label for us,” adds Carney “because we’ve been influenced by some of their artists and we wanted to stay away from indie rock labels since we’re not an indie rock band.”

Of his musical influences growing up, Carneys says he listened to the Beatles and the Stones, and through his father, STAX and old soul music. In 2000, he started playing in his first band, Churchbuilder, with Denise Grollmus, delivering a dreamy synth-pop sound that’s nothing like the music he would soon be making with Auerbach.

Auerbach’s musical taste leaned more toward the blues than rock ’n’ roll. “I would raid my father’s record collection,” Auerbach says. “He had a lot of old blues albums — like Son House, Robert Nighthawk, Junior Kimbrough, and T-Model Ford — so I was into that stripped-down blues thing. I really got into it,” he adds. “I was just in my own little world with this blues music. And that’s pretty much what I got obsessed with. But my dad also had a lot of Motown, like Otis Redding, shit like that that definitely influenced me. Definitely.”

Auerbach’s fascination with the blues led him to a pilgrimage down to the Delta to find his hero. “I traveled there with my dad, and we went looking for Junior Kimbrough,” he remembers. “We went to Coahoma [Mississippi] and went to his club; he wasn’t there, but his family was. His sons were there and they all play his style of music. We just hung out and drank corn liquor all night.”

The atmosphere must have seeped into him, because Auerbach picked up some of the Kimbrough sound, most notably on their single, “The Moan.” But in such a short time, the Keys have managed to develop a sound that is uniquely their own, and their live performances have to be seen to be believed. I have seen them win over people who had absolutely no idea who they were. The lack of a bass player hasn’t hurt the Keys, in fact, they have tried bass players but it just never worked for them. “I play a lot of bass notes with my thumb,” Auerbach offers. The truth is that a bass player would hurt the Keys’ hypnotic, funky gut-groove that captivates the listener with its intensity.

They recently played the legendary Jon Peel show on the BBC and picked up more fans across the pond. There’s no doubt that this is a band in it for the long haul that will leave a lasting impression on the music scene. Congress has declared 2003 “The Year of the Blues,” and it’s fitting that this is the year the Black Keys make their mark.

When asked what they might do next, Carney quips: “I’m still trying to get us to do more of the Tom-Tom Club. ”

“With string arrangements,” kids Auerbach.

If it’s on his six-string Telecaster, it just might work out.