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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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Photo of The Black Keys by James Carney
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.
"After the first or second day it was very obvious we were doing something neither one of us had really done before and it was great. At the end of the day, it's easier to do stuff like that when you have great songs already written, and they're great songwriters. That was the thing, what they do is already so strong that you can mess with it a little bit and do some things a little differently because the core is already so strong," says Burton. "It is different than any of their other records for sure and a couple things we did on the record I was like, 'I hope their fans don't hate me.' But, as long as they were happy with it, which I think they were, it was a really good experience. I learned a bunch from working with them, too."
Like it? Auerbach and Carney fucking love it.
"I think this record is our best record, and it's definitely my favorite record that we've ever made. I attribute a lot of it to Brian," explains Carney. "For a band that's never worked with a producer having one in the first place was a big help, but I think it was mostly having a producer like Brian. He had no agenda. He didn't give a shit if his idea got used. He would push both of us to come up with ideas. I remember coming home from the studio every single night while we were recording on Cloud 9. I don't think I've ever felt that excited about a project I've ever worked on. He definitely made the record the most memorably music experience I've ever had."
"I think having him in the room just affects what's going on musically. He doesn't hold back any punches, and he's supremely confident in what he's doing and what he's hearing," continues Auerbach. "He cuts all the bullshit and just goes right for the jugular, and that's what we needed. I don't think we could have the classic style producer. I don't think that would work for us. He comes at it from a totally different perspective, where anything is game and there are absolutely no rules."
Ah, no rules, the Danger Mouse trademark, and exactly what makes Attack & Release such an incredible piece of work. Where past efforts have essentially been Auerbach and Carney grinding out their sound as a stripped-down duo, Burton not only plays organ, piano, keyboards and bass, he and the Keys brought in guitarist Marc Ribot and Carney's multi-instrumentalist uncle Ralph Carney (flute, clarinet, jaw harp and more), both longtime members of Tom Waits' touring band. The album also features Kent, Ohio's 18-year-old bluegrass/country singer Jessica Lea Mayfield and vocalist Carla Monday. The result is the Keys' most experimental and impressive album to date. But, what truly makes it shine is that it's still distinctly The Black Keys. Burton was able to retain their classic, dirt-under-the-fingernails, blue-collar rock & roll aesthetic but beefed it up and shot the Keys into some sort of backwoods, psychedelic juke joint that is somehow both contemporary and classic, and maybe even a touch futuristic.
Take the song "Psychotic Girl." Easily one of the best tracks on the album, we find a creepy banjo rolling underneath ghostly background vocals and eerie keyboards. "Strange Times" augments the steady beat and overdriven guitars with more wraith-like vocals floating around and big breakdowns with high-pitched keys and buckets of Carney's crashing drums. "Lies" is a desperate, elastic lament of cold love with layers of sound hanging on every twist and devious turn. Then there's "Same Old Thing" with Ralph Carney's jazz flute dancing atop doubled vocals and hypnotic beats. Every song is thick with emotion and deep with thought. The more you listen, the more you hear. Danger Mouse did his job, and so did Auerbach and Carney. They've made an album that transcends their dirty blues base but retains its soul.
The Black Keys by James Carney
Eager to tour their new batch of songs, the Keys have taken this adventurous attitude to the stage. While not trying to recreate the studio magic of Attack & Release live, they have invited Ralph Carney to a number of dates and added some toys to the backline.
"What we've been doing is slowly integrating some new things into our set-up, like we're using a Fender Rhodes and I've got this crazy late '70s drum synthesizer. It's actually eight synthesizers," laughs Carney. "It's really awesome but it was kind of designed to make sounds that sound awful like the Traveling Wilburys' tom sounds or something like that. I take it and I basically run it through a bunch of fucking effects and make it sound like an 808. I'm into it."
With the Keys beefing up their sound, adding new gear, guest musicians and working with a living legend like Danger Mouse, one wonders if maybe the duo format is limiting where they could go.
"Honestly the only drawback to being a duo is the persistent references to The White Stripes. It's the only drawback, and it's fucking annoying as shit. But, we don't feel like we're missing anything and we never really have. So, that's the only drawback is having to fucking be compared to another band constantly. I think it's one of the laziest fucking things of all time," says Carney. "I think we sound fucking like The Black Keys. I don't think we sound like any other band."
The Black Keys tour dates available here...
The Black Keys: "I Got Mine" (Live on "Late Show With David Letterman")
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