The Black Keys: How ‘two dorky dudes from Akron’ became a formidable force in rock and roll
Six-time Grammy winners have long left their days playing tiny clubs in the rear view and are now a decidedly arena act
Back in the summer of 2002, a fresh-faced Patrick Carney and his bandmate Dan Auerbach played for the first time in San Diego at the-then 75-person capacity Casbah.
“I still tend to go there anytime I’m in town,” says Carney, remembering his early days as one half of the alternative rock group The Black Keys. “We were just two dorky dudes from Akron, Ohio, dressed in clothes from a thrift store.”
Despite his proclamation of a lack of hipness and aforementioned questionable fashion, the duo has grown from playing for handfuls of people at venues like The Casbah to a formidable force in rock and roll. The six-time Grammy winners have long left their days playing tiny clubs in the rear view and are now a decidedly arena act. That includes a looming concert — part of its Let’s Rock Tour — in San Diego on Sunday, this time at the 16,000-seat Pechanga Arena San Diego.
“The transition does blow my mind,” says Carney, who says the first time he ever went to an arena show was when The Black Keys played one. “Though if Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself, I’m sure I would have seen Nirvana at an arena.”
Having continuing large-scale success in a band that can best be described as an organic rock and roll two-piece, with Carney on drums and Auerbach on vocals and lead guitar, is a modern-day feat as the two have few peers. It’s rarefied musical air, and one that isn’t lost on Carney.
“By the late ‘80s, rock and roll was moving out of the mainstream and now, more or less, it isn’t a part of the pop music vocabulary anymore,” he muses of the state of rock affairs. “I ultimately think it’s a good thing. I would have stopped listening to my favorite rock bands if they were being played on Top 40 radio, which I think is part of the unspoken rule about it. Would I have liked The Stooges as much if I heard them anytime I went into a grocery store? Probably not.”
It’s that defiance that has manifested itself into The Black Keys’ ninth studio album, aptly dubbed “Let’s Rock.” Released in June, it continues to build on a foundation of Carney and Auerbach’s inspirations while growing up fans of the genre in Ohio.
The duo, known collectively for only recording a few takes of each song, took to the process since it yields a rough-around-the-edges sound — a quality Carney and Auerbach prized in bands like the ‘60s-era Washington-based band The Sonics.
“Their recordings were raw and live,” he says, noting that his favorite rock and roll moment of all time can be found in the The Kingsmen’s iconic 1963 cover of “Louie Louie.” “Towards the end of the song, the lead singer comes in early and then has to repeat a line. You never know it’s a mistake until you realize it’s a mistake.”
While Black Keys recordings don’t feature such overt musical bloopers, it’s that natural quality that the duo tends to creatively gravitate towards.
“When we go into a studio to make a record, it comes really quickly,” he explains. “For this last one, we were recording a song a day and, at some point, had to stop to sort through what we had done because we would have had a massive amount of material.”
The plan seemed to work: “Lo/Hi,” which was “Let’s Rock’s” debut single, became the first song ever to hit No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock, Adult Alternative Songs, Rock Airplay, and Alternative Songs charts simultaneously.
That warm reception could also have been the result of hunger for Black Keys material, since the track also marked their first song as a duo after a five-year hiatus. While there was no personal friction between the two that merited the break, it was one that felt warranted after 15 years of constant touring and recording as a pair.
“We grew up together, and the only time I ever played drums live on stage, with few exceptions, was with Dan,” says Carney of their close relationship.
Not that Carney was relaxing in the interim. In the intervening years, he had a baby with and later married the singer-songwriter Michelle Branch (the two met at a Grammy party that led to him producing her 2017 album “Hopeless Romantic.”
When it comes to his successes with the Black Keys, however, they fly in the face of a thesis he noted when discussing rock and roll: “It’s best suited not being popular. It’s supposed to be dangerous and rare (which is why) there’s only one or two stations that play alternative rock per city.”
So then, how would he pinpoint the cause of his own majorly successful rock act?
“The story is that Dan and I have stayed steadily busy and pushed each other to see what’s beyond whatever we are currently doing,” he says, thinking of those early days at The Casbah. “It used to be that when we’d play tiny clubs, we’d say let’s try to do a 500-seat venue, then it became 1,000-seat venues. Once you’re playing arenas, though, you just focus on trying to make the shows as fun as possible.”
The Black Keys, with Modest Mouse and Shannon and the Clams
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pechanga Arena San Diego, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., Midway District
LeDonne is a freelance writer.
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