The Black Keys: Everything Leading Up to Now
Despite being just two people, The Black Keys made a name for themselves long ago thanks to their ability to create a full band sound. After self-producing a series of grungy, blues-inspired albums in their Akron, OH home studio, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney teamed up with uber-hip producer Danger Mouse to create their fifth studio album, Attack & Release. The twelve-song collection was released this spring, shortly before the duo hit the road for their highest profile headlining tour to date. The punky blues pair will also appear at a number of festivals, ranging from Rothbury to ACL to Lollapalooza. Below the often outspoken Carney discusses working with Danger Mouse, collaborating with Ike Turner and why ACL is way cooler than SXSW.
MG- I heard that Attack & Release was originally conceived as collaboration with Ike Turner. Is that true and, if so, did you decide to shift gears after his death?
PC- Yeah. We originally just started working on material for a new record and, halfway through that, we were contacted by Danger Mouse and he wanted us to kind of write these songs, send them to him and have Ike Turner sing on the album. It sounded really cool, so we started working on it, but it was taking a really long time to complete anything. So we ended up kind of postponing that project, but asking Brian [Danger Mouse] to produce the album that became Attack & Release.
MG- How many songs from your intended collaboration with Ike Turner made the final version of Attack & Release?
PC- A lot of them were just songs that we had, so a lot of them made it on the record. In a way, we just decided re-approach those songs differently when we got the Ike thing. So there are versions of Ike singing “I Got Mine” and “Lies,” which are two of the three songs he completed. We kind of felt like they were the best songs, so we didn’t want to give them away. We’d record the songs and then mixed them with and without vocals and then sent them to California. Ike would use our vocals as reference and then would lay down his vocals.
MG- How did the whole Danger Mouse collaboration come to fruition?
PC- We were fans of his music, but he called us completely out of the blue. His manager called our manager. [In joking voice] his people called our people [laughter].
MG- From The Grey Album to Gnarls Barkley, Danger Mouse definitely has a distinct style and leaves his fingerprint on whatever project he is involved with. How would you describe his production technique?
PC- His production technique is to let whatever band he is working with do their own thing and offer a lot of suggestions. He’s not controlling and realizes that the bands he is working with kind of spark that creativity. So the three of us really collaborated on stuff. He acted as the producer and we wrote the material.
MG- How any of these tracks were you able to test out on the road before entering the studio?
PC- One. “I Got Mine” we played live before the record was made. I think we have been playing it since the spring of ’07. Then we started working in “All You Ever Wanted,” a retooled version of “Strange Times,” “Same Old Thing” and a few others. I think we can do all but four songs off the record at this point.
MG- You mentioned that you retooled “Strange Times” for your live performances. What was the process like of deconstructing these songs and reworking them for a live setting?
PC- Yeah. All these songs, for me, were conceived pre-Danger Mouse. So we are kind of created a hybrid of the original versions and the Danger Mouse versions for our shows.
MG- Attack & Release is also the first album you recorded in a traditional studio with a traditional producer, correct?
PC- Yeah. It was just something we thought we both wanted to do. With a producer, we get a lot more done, not having to do it all ourselves. We found a good engineer. Everything we did we wanted to do because we thought it would be fun.
MG- In addition, Attack & Release features a few special guests, including Marc Ribot. How did that collaboration come to fruition?
PC- We are both huge fans of his guitar playing. My uncle [Ralph Carney] knows him because they used to play together with Tom Waits for a long time. So we had Ralph call Ribot and that’s how it all went down. They are both super talented and super underrated people. They are inspiring people and fun to be around.
MG- I was watching a DVD of the third Bonnaroo the other day. One of the DVD’s most memorable scenes compares and contrasts The Black Keys’ journey to Bonnaroo with Dave Matthews’ first trip to the festival. He’s in a personal tour bus, while you guys are crammed into a van. Four years later, are you any closer to traveling like Dave?
PC- We got our first bus yesterday, actually. It is very unusual for us to be on tour and rested and not stressed out [laughter]. It’s also really fucking expensive, but it is necessary. We have so much gear now and an eight-hour drive between gigs sometimes. So if we get done loading out at midnight and get to a hotel at 2 AM and have to load in at 1 PM, we have to wake up at 5 AM. It is almost impossible to do this trip without a bus. We were very reluctant, but it is the price you pay. I am a very, very frugal person.
MG- In retrospect, what do you think of that DVD?
PC- You know, they sent us a copy of that DVD and then someone broke into my house and stole all my DVDs. Luckily all they stole were DVDs and a bag of frozen chicken breasts and some change. There was a string of robberies that same night, where they broke into houses and a church and stole things like coffee or change and maybe a TV. So I was assuming that it was probably someone really, really high or really, really poor so I assume they needed it more than I did.
MG- Looking back, what is your favorite festival memory?
PC- All the festivals last year seemed to be our favorites [laughter]. I think we finally figured it out after a couple of years of playing festivals. Bonnaroo was excellent, and Lollapalooza was awesome too. We learned how to play outdoors, in the sunlight, 50 people away from the nearest person and not let that get in the way of trying to relate to the audience. We used to pretend like we are in 300 person room, but that doesn’t quite work. I am not really sure what it is, but you have to compensate a little bit. We are playing Rothbury this summer which should be cool and Lollapalooza again, as well as ACL which we played in 2005. ACL is better than SXSW for sure. It is not an industry function, it’s a festival. As cool as it is to go meet the photo editor of whatever magazine [laughter] everyone is there to make money at SXSW. ACL is about enjoying the music. I don’t understand why people who aren’t in bands or the industry would go down to SXSW. I just don’t get it. It’s kind of like the indie-rock luminary meeting of the year or something like that.
MG- Shifting back to the studio for a minute, do you feel Attack & Release is a natural evolution from your previous records or a purposeful stylistic shift?
PC- Each album represents where are heads were at that particular time. Like The Big Come Up is us just having never played a show or really doing anything but figuring out how to make a record. And I am really proud of that. And the Rubber Factory is us kind of in a weird time, getting national exposure and approached by big, big labels. We took the approach of not wanting to fuck with the big labels yet. We have done everything ourselves and I am really proud of that. All my favorite bands have taken that approach. You learn how to do things on the fly and how to do things yourself. I look to bands like Modest Mouse and Pavement. Those two stick out as bands who have done that. I have been a fan of Modest Mouse since 1996 when This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About came out. That album sounds like it was recorded in a fucking closet. And now their album has Johnny Marr on it and it sounds really slick. But it’s still fucking good. Pavement used to sound really lo-fi and their last record Terror Twilight was recorded by Nigel Godrich.
MG- The Black Keys are often called a blues-rock band or blues-rock revivalists. In your opinion, what is the status of the blues in America?
PC- Even though we are influenced by blues-rock and outcast blues musicians, I don’t think it is an American musical form anymore. Blues, to me, sounds not the same. I don’t know if blues exists anymore, but bands can still be influenced by that and make rock and roll. And I think that’s where we see ourselves. We are influenced by everything leading up to now.
MG- That sounds like the title of a best best of’ album, now?
PC- I get on the internet and google our band and see descriptions like “retro-rockers.” But, honestly, there isn’t anything more retro about us than any other band. I meanwe like classic amplifiers, but that’s because they were fucking handmade and sound cool. They don’t sound like Joe Satriani. We like a lot of new music and a lot of old music. In high school a lot of peers of mine were all trying to ride the trend. I was always more interested in Captain Beefheart records than the shit that came out in high school.
I guess I dislike a lot of stuff now. Just to generalize, the sound of an Ovation acoustic guitar or the sound of a nylon string [laughter]. Shit that sounds shit. We were watching this Def Leppard documentary the other day I was thinking, “How is it possible for five people with such bad taste to meet each other?” But it is all personal opinion. But I prefer my opinion [laughter].
Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus remixes his typos at www.greenhauseffect.com