The Black Keys, Margarine and the Rubber Factory
With the release of their third album, Rubber Factory earlier this month, the Black Keys have gone another step beyond the safe familiar confines of their Akron, Ohio homebase to attracting a worldwide following.
The duo of vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney began constructing their a raw brand of rock and roll just for fun in Carney's parents' basement. Major inspiration came from the gritty blues of Auerbach heroes such as Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford, but a listen to the Keys' originals and choice of covers shows that influences do not end at the border of Mississippi.
Live, the ferocity of the music drags listeners into the Black Keys' world of thick, greasy riffs and fat-bottomed rhythms. While the band's been lauded in alt-rock circles since its 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, it immediately gained a whole new crowd after a sweat-soaked midday performance at last summer's Bonnaroo Music Festival.
JPG: It took two months to record the new disc versus 14 hours for the previous album. You recorded the new one in a former rubber factory close to your Akron homes, what led to that decision?
DA: We just have our own ideas about music and rather than go see if it's going to work with somebody else, we just wanted to do it the way we do it. People who run studios and stuff like that don't often have the same ideas about stuff.
We want things to sound rough and blown out, real organic. We want to use that really nice equipment, but we want to use it wrong. Push it to where it's not supposed to be, just like they used to do at Sun Records before they knew better. We've been in a couple studios and people don't want you fuckin' with their little baby microphones and shit like that. 'This is the level it is to be recorded at.' (He says this in a monotone, robotic voice)
We like to do stuff on our own. It works out better that way. We don't have to think about any stupid idea that we might have.
JPG: How did that approach manifest itself o the new record?
DA: We experimented with different sounds, acoustic guitar, fiddle, some percussion and lap steel. We wanted to vary the feel from song to song a little bit more. So, there's really uptempo songs, rock and roll songs, and there's really quiet, soft, spacial things going on too. We wanted to make a record that varied in its tones and feel.
JPG: You mentioned Sun Records. What has been your exposure and engagement with the music recorded there?
DA: My dad introduced me to a lot of blues records when I was younger. I started listening to Son House and Robert Johnson. He had Bessie Smith and stuff like that. I just clicked with that. I started getting more into blues music and went forward from there to when it started to get electric.
For some reason, that earlier stuff, the transitional period when it wasn't quite country and it wasn't quite city is what I found I liked the best. I was searching for records that were recorded with that same kind of feel and that same kind of style and stripped down country electric sound.
JPG: Do you think you may do something more like that, not the transitional stuff, but go back to Robert Johnson era type stuff?
DA: I would never want to do that like it was done. I'd never play a blues song acoustically or something like that. It's what I listened to when I taught myself to play guitar. It's always gonna be there, whether I'm copying this all directly or not.
JPG: That brings up this. When people talk about the blues, there’s always that thought of the four bar style that’s been done many, many times over. Until someone actually hears your music, do you suffer from that stigma?
DA: Yeah, I never tell people that we play blues or anything. I just say we play rock and roll. I mean it's such a pain in the ass to describe music anyway 'cause most people don't give a shit about music. You know what I mean? Or don't really want to think about it. So, I've learned not to waste my time trying to describe it. If they know me, then I can talk about it. If not, it's like, What do you do?' 'I play rock and roll for a living.' That's pretty much it.
JPG: What about your decision to sign with Fat Possum Records, a label that is closely associated with the blues?
DA: I love Fat Possum Records. There's no question about that. We did have reservations about signing with them because they are generally a blues label and we didn't want to be associated with blues. We didn't want to get pigeonholed like that. We'd rather be on a rock and roll label. But, after we talked to them more and let them know exactly what we needed and got some promises out of them, we went ahead and signed with them.
The first rule is we can't have our record in the blues bins in record stores. It's just been a great thing because they have the same ideas about music, whether it's rock and roll or rap, blues or whatever, that we do. It's been a great relationship.
JPG: How did you and Patrick get together and how did it end up being the just two of you?
DA: We grew up around the corner from each other. So, we knew each other since we were 10 years old. When we were in middle school/high school, we were introduced for the first time as two people who played music and that was from our friend who lived across the street from us. So, we just started playing music. Pat had a drum kit and amplifier and a four-track. I had a guitar and an amp and I'd go over to Pat's basement and we'd play and record and make mix tapes with the four-track and just had fun making up songs.
It was always just the two of us. We never had anybody else with us. We tried to at one point after we had sent out a demo and got our record deal. We thought maybe we should have somebody else. We had a friend of ours come over and play Moog synthesizer and it just didn't work out. It didn't sound right. It didn't feel right. We were so used to by then just the two of us. It just didn't work. Just kept it the two piece and that's how it's always been.JPG: I believe the English magazine Uncut that had your first two albums on its year-end best of list. Talk about the impact you’ve made over there.
DA: It's a smaller country, but they've got radio and the radio is not owned by big business. So the radio is free to play whatever they like. So, we get support on the national radio and on the BBC. It makes a world of difference.
It's so much better for music in general because the record labels don't own radio stations like they do here. Some people who are on small independent labels can actually get a chance unlike in the United States where there's no chance, where it's all run by money.
JPG: Speaking of exposure, I saw you play down at Bonnaroo last June. What were thoughts about playing the festival when you were first asked? Did you think at all about playing before a jamband audience?
DA: I think what we do, I think it comes off well live. We weren't going to play that festival if it was just jambands. They do a really good job of making it as diverse as possible. Just the fact that they have people such as Calexico, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, they've got those kind of acts there, not just noodling jambands that I have absolutely no interest of being a part of, we were a little bit more comfortable to go down there and play. If it had just been jambands, the only reason we would have done it would have been for the money. That would have been wrong. But we still would have done it. (laughs)Just kidding.
JPG: At least that’s a better deal than doing a car commercial…
DA: We got asked to do a margarine commercial in the U.K.
DA: After a lot of thought we actually turned it down. I don't know. Funny. Things we never thought we'd have to think about.
JPG: Did they want an original song or were they like "Thick Freakness" can be associated with thick margarine?
DA: They wanted to use "Think Freakness" for their margarine commercial. (laughs) Fuckin' awesome! (laughs)
JPG: Being from Akron, Ohio, do you find you’re treated differently, whereas if you lived in New York and discovered there and possibly hyped more…
DA: You know what I find? The farther away from home you get the more people are interested in where you're from and the more it helps you. In the U.S., we do better on the West Coast than we do on the East Coast. We do best in Australia (laughs) on the other side of the world.
I think it's good to be from some place nobody really knows about because it peaks their interest. It's not the same old bullshit. It's not some city where 100,000 other bands come from.
JPG: So you’re not packing your bags to move to LA and hang out with Velvet Revolver or something like that.
DA: Oh my god. That band makes me want to vomit on myself. Jesus christ have you seen that video? They're in that L.A. movie set, dirty subway.
JPG: It’s just such an L.A. world with the leather pants and…
DA: I know. That whole band is just like this fuckin' major label A&R jerk off session. It's disgusting.
JPG: (laughs) I’m glad I made your day by mentioning them now. I’ll change the subject quickly. What’s next?
DA: We start touring in September to support the record. That's pretty much it. We're going to be doing a video in New York when we've got a show there. We play Canada and we'll just drop down to New York City and do a video. It's crazy. We've never had the budget that we have now. To be able to actually think about it ahead of time, and get some stuff taken care of because the last record it was like they didn't spend anything on the record and, gradually, as we got press they started to spend a little bit more and maybe they'd give us a little bit of money to make a video. Now we're going to go ahead and do everything ahead so that we're all ready. We overworked the shit out of ourselves last year. So, when we're in the middle of touring the entire friggin' world, we're not going to have any time to do any of this stuff. It's like doing your homework, which I've never done.