NAMU: The Black Keys get a gnarly makeover
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Patrick Carney just devoured two hot dogs in Manhattan, and he couldn't be happier. Ignore the fact that Carney and his bandmate, Dan Auerbach, as The Black Keys, are in the most successful phase of their career, ignore that they just rocked a near-rabid crowd at Lollapalooza and ignore that the band's latest record, "Attack and Release," has garnered the kind of critical praise that rarely comes this positive.
For Black Keys drummer Carney, he's simply stoked about the dogs.
And that's the attitude this blues duo from Akron, Ohio, has taken throughout its seven-year run: be thankful for the little things and never, ever take yourself too seriously.
It's a good outlook, too, considering the layout of The Black Keys isn't exactly the most orthodox rock 'n' roll vehicle -- only two guys and two instruments but enough swampy blues riffs and kick drum punch to move crowds of thousands into a frenzy.
"We were just those two neighborhood kids who liked the same kind of music," Carney said, calling on a shoddy cell phone from the heart of Manhattan.
"[Years later] Dan was going to record a demo with the band he was in. I was going to be there as well. But those guys never showed up ... so we ended up recording our first demo."
It was the late '90s, and both Auerbach and Carney had just dropped out of college. With the accidental demo in hand, the two formed The Black Keys and, to avoid the need for real jobs, quickly began shopping it around to independent labels and booking their own tours.
"At first, we had to tour in my minivan playing little music halls to nobody. Literally, nobody. The first couple shows we played to, like, 10 people. Then we got to Seattle and 150 people came out to see us. That was huge; that was a high point," Carney said. "We were totally confused but totally giddy that so many people showed up. It made us want to keep going, even during the summer, in a van without air conditioning."
If Carney makes those first months sound desperate, it's because they were. The duo was touring just to pay rent. ("By the time we made it home, we'd saved $500 and could afford bills for a month or two," he said.)
Give a listen to one of the band's early albums and you'll see just how the duo uses three instruments -- including Auerbach's low, soulful wail -- to bend and twist each song into a dark, groove-heavy garage jam. You might credit Auerbach's wealth of chunky, hard-hitting guitar riffs and his simple, plaintive melodies for just how engaging a Black Keys song is, but the true cause is the interplay between the two best friends.
Carney's percussive blasts give a backbone to Auerbach's winding grooves. Together, the duo plays smoky, backroom rock 'n' roll, heads nodding, feet tapping and drinks flowing.
After two more albums of both rising popularity and potency, 2003's "Thickfreakness" and 2004's "Rubber Factory," The Black Keys seemed to plateau with 2006's "Magic Potion." The record had all the signature blues riffs and jagged tones but, well, nothing new.
Enter Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame), and The Black Keys were pushed to a new level. And you can thank Ike Turner. Seriously.
Shortly after The Black Keys signed to record on Turner's new album, to be produced by Danger Mouse, the soul legend died, bringing the Keys and the Mouse together directly as he was brought on to produce the duo's fourth album.
"[Danger Mouse] was a major part of the record. His influence is all over the place -- sometimes it's really subtle, sometimes it's more extreme," Carney said. "And he only wanted to work on the record if we wanted [a new musical direction]."
Luckily, agreement on a change was mutual, and after a three-week session recording in their native Ohio, The Black Keys released "Attack and Release" this past April and attacked the few remaining rock lovers who hadn't already heard of the band.
So how did the guy who put out Gnarls Barkley's pop smash "Crazy" affect The Black Keys' down 'n' dirty neo-blues?
The answer is texture, and "Attack and Release" has got more of it than a book of carpet samples. Knob-twister Danger Mouse added slight touches -- a background flute here, a blip or bleep there -- to the Keys' stripped-down rock to create a sound still rough and rootsy, but more layered and refined, creating the duo's best record to date.
But with the accolades pouring in, money being made (let's just say more than $500) and festival appearances abounding, The Black Keys are still the humble, left-of-center kids on the block, as always.
"Last night, we got to hang out with [Welsh soul singer] Duffy, and I told her I wanted to redesign her mind," Carney said. "She thought I was totally [expletive] annoying."
The Black Keys play the New American Music Union festival on Friday night.
First Published August 7, 2008 12:00 am