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Akron, Ohio is not a glamorous place. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in Akron in 1935, as was the automobile tire industry. Known as "The Rubber City," Akron experienced a major boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s as B.F. Goodrich, Goodyear and other tire companies transformed the small canal town into an industrial city. Just as things seemed to be rolling along well for Akron's factory families the industry changed. European companies created radial tires (while American, and specifically Akron factories were still using bias-ply tires) and by the late 1980s and early '90s the dream was over. Factories were shut down, people were out of work and the local economy was in a free-fall.
Dan Auerbach (guitar/vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) are too young to have worked in the tire factories, but they're lives have been shaped by Akron. They went to the same high school and after they dropped out of college they started mowing lawns together for a local slumlord. They weren't exactly living the dream, but they worked hard and were able to blow off steam playing R.L. Burnside riffs in Carney's dilapidated basement-come-studio. In 2001, they recorded a demo as The Black Keys (a name given to them by a local schizophrenic artist that was meant to be an insult) that would land them a deal with Alive Records for their debut album, The Big Come Up. The sound wasn't new but there was a primal aspect to Auerbach's fuzzed-out guitar and pain-soaked howl mixing with Carney's ass-beating garage rock drums that was impossible to deny. You can't fake music like this. The blues don't sound right if it ain't in you, and Akron had filled this duo with the right stuff.
"I think we're both pretty hard workers and aren't very flashy human beings," says Carney. "I think that all comes from being from Ohio." While there are always exceptions to a rule, you wouldn't expect a couple of privileged kids from Connecticut or hippies from Boulder to make this kind of distorted, heavy, Mississippi blues-inspired music. "That's why there's so many bad punk bands from Southern California, a lot of jam bands from New England, hip-hop in New York and boy bands in Orlando" continues Carney. As many psychologists argue, perhaps we are just a product of our environment.
With their debut pressed, the Keys set out on their first tour. They had no grand plan, they just wanted to play some dives, come back home, make another record and do it again. Then Rolling Stone gave The Big Come Up four stars and all of a sudden the world was listening to The Black Keys.
In 2003 they upped their game with Thickfreakness for Fat Possum and in 2004 they took up residence in an abandoned tire factory and created Rubber Factory. Continuing to flesh-out their gritty, explosive sound they went back to Carney's refurbished basement studio to lay down their Nonesuch Records debut, 2006's Magic Potion.
It was around this time that the band really began to blow up. Although the duo took a hard indie-stance and famously turned down a mayonnaise maker's bid to use one of their songs in a U.K. television commercial and subsequently denied Hummer use of their music as well, they soon got another chance to take the money. "Girl is on My Mind" was used in a 2006 Sony Ericsson ad as well as a 2006 Victoria's Secret commercial featuring Heidi Klum. "10 AM Automatic" was used in a video game, featured on The O.C., and found its way to a huge 2007 American Express commercial starring Shaun White. Another track, "Your Touch," was part of a 2007 Lee Jeans commercial and can be heard in an episode of Friday Night Lights. So what's up? Did The Black Keys sell out?
"I see no problems with it, especially now that no one's buying records. You have this opportunity to make some money that you might be able to use to pay for your kid's college, for fucking letting somebody put a song in a commercial, I don't see the fucking problem," says Carney. "And my dad would kill me if I told him that we turned down his salary for two years to synch a song to a commercial. He's been working for 40 years. He would think that we were fucking pompous idiots. So, I agree with that."
Good point. TV is the new radio and the rules are different. Which brings us to the most interesting chapter of The Black Keys story, Attack & Release (released April 1, 2008 on Nonesuch). For the first time in their career the Keys elected to use a producer. But, it wasn't just any knob-twiddler. They shacked up with super-stud Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) of Gnarls Barkley fame.
The duo was originally approached by Burton to act as the backing band for an Ike Turner project he was putting together. "I've known Ike for years and I wanted to do something contemporary with him for a long time but I didn't want to do a hip-hop record, I didn't want to do something with his band, I wanted to do something different, but I didn't know what yet, until it hit me" says Burton. "When it hit me I knew it was perfect. I almost knew [The Black Keys] would say yes. They had to. So, I got on the phone with them and they said yeah."
As the sessions with Turner lagged, a second album focused on the Keys began to emerge. Off to a good start with the Turner project, they put that on hold and decided to head out to Suma Studios in Painesville, Ohio, where they recorded what would become Attack & Release in about two and a half weeks.
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