The Black Keys: Chart-Topping Blues

Jaan Uhelszki on September 23, 2014

Photo: Danny Clinch

It’s an overcast day in Nashville, Tenn. gray, cold, with a hint of rain in the sky—not the kind of day that attracts six million tourists a year to the spiritual home of country music. But nobody comes to Music City because of the weather. They come looking for the Holy Grail of country music, where every cab driver, accountant and waiter is a songwriter and the kid busking on the corner of Lower Broadway with a George Jones songbook actually has a chance to be the next…well, George Jones.

But I’m not going to that Nashville. I’m going to the Nashville with the super-cool record stores, like the retail arm of Jack White’s Third Man Records—a tiny jewel box of a store where all of the employees wear black and yellow uniforms and sell only their own narrowly curated product—or the more informal and vastly superior Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, where you’re likely to run into Robert Plant, John Prine, Gene Simmons or Jim James pawing through the extensive bins.

The Nashville I’ve come to see is the one where Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney moved in 2010 after Auerbach pulled up his Ohio stakes and went south.

Four years later, it’s still inexplicable that they left Akron—a gritty post-industrial town known as the birthplace of rubber companies, waffle cones, caramel corn, oatmeal, Alcoholics Anonymous and a rampant contrarianism in its natives. The city of Akron is a silent partner, the third member, and a talisman for Carney and Auerbach.

“Hi, we’re The Black Keys and we’re from Akron,” Auerbach said at their recent show for SiriusXM in their adopted hometown this May. It is impossible to imagine them saying, “Hi, we’re The Black Keys and we’re from Nashville.”

Some people opine that like Chrissie Hynde, Devo, Jim Jarmusch, Maynard James Keenan, Joseph Arthur, and even Alice Cooper band members Neal Smith and Glen Buxton four decades before them, The Black Keys didn’t want to fall victim to “The Akron Curse”: the oft-bandied, “You have to leave town in order to make it.”

So, in August of 2010, Auerbach drove the 508 miles south with his then-wife and daughter, Sadie, to change his juju. “There were more options there on every level—music, restaurants, everything,” Auerbach says.

“I gotta be honest,” Auerbach told Bon Appetit magazine back in 2012, “I moved here partly because of the food.”

That may be more true than anyone ever suspected, especially after he took the readers of an effete food magazine through a whirlwind tour of Nashville’s hot cuisine, ending up at the City House, his then-favorite eatery. “If I’m not touring,” says Auerbach, “I’m probably there eating the octopus with butter beans, the North Carolina mussels with linguine and the belly-ham pizza.”

“I hate to make it all come down to food, but Dan really cares about what he eats,” says Carney. “When it comes down to certain things, I’m just indifferent.

“I’m the kind of person who, if I’m at a restaurant, I’ll just say, ‘I’ll have what he’s ordering.’ That’s pretty much how I got to Nashville. The same thing happened when I moved to New York from Akron. I was going through a divorce and I wanted to spread my wings a little bit. I never thought I’d live in New York but my brother Mike was moving there, so I basically tagged along. Then after about a year, Dan decided to leave Akron and move to Nashville. I was having a little too much fun in New York. So I just tagged along. Pretty much ordered what he ordered.”

To see exactly what was on that menu, I’m in a cab careening toward the outskirts of Nashville, 10 miles southwest of downtown.

The word “house” hardly does justice to the space that Carney shares with wife Emily and theirtwoIrishWolfhounds,DarlaandCharlotte. Very simply, it looks like something out of Downton Abbey. It’s set back from the road, with a long, winding driveway that takes you through a copse of trees and such beautiful foliage that you feel like it’s spray-painted. The road stops abruptly at what looks like a medieval gatehouse with a brick overhang, and then out of the fine mists, a stone storybook house appears.

There is a tasteful austerity and meticulousness in the furnishing, and it’s so unnervingly clean that you feel like you could do surgery on the kitchen floor. That is, if you weren’t distracted by the precious little breakfast nook painted celadon green—in what was once a wine cellar— or the double fireplace in the living room. There’s a keen attention to detail, from the strategically placed tea tables to the way that Carney’s collection of Harmony Korine paintings are hung. “Harmony is always telling me which of his paintings to buy. It’s a little like insider trading,” laughs Carney about his friend and former neighbor.

All of it seems outwardly at odds with The Black Keys’ messy, straightforward aesthetic, but it’s not.

Photo: John Patrick Gatta

It’s 11 A.M. on this dreary day and Carney is just waking up. He’s on his second cup of espresso made in a state-of-the-art Nespresso machine, and he’s still a little pre-verbal. And grouchy. He’s been up until the wee hours, not celebrating as you might expect—just three days before, The Black Keys’ eighth album, Turn Blue, debuted at No. 1—but being vexed.

“I’ve been in a kind of grumpy mood today. I’m not really sure why,” he trails off. “No, I know why.” he says, pausing to light one of many Camel Lights.

Is having a No. 1 record a bad thing?

“No, that’s not it.”

I ask him for a confirmation that they have legitimately made it.

This is a band, after all, that even after winning three awards earlier in the night felt out of place at a glitzy Grammy party. Do they feel like they belong there now?

“No. Not really,” replies Carney, quickly snapping his mouth shut as if to stop himself from saying more.

“I wouldn’t want to go to those parties anyway,” he huffs. “But that’s where my head’s been this whole time.”

A lifelong rock fan, Carney will proudly recount, after a couple of drinks, how he stalked Mark Mothersbaugh back in 1996, when the infamous Devo co-founder came home to Akron to visit his mother after a Cleveland Lollapalooza date. He’s more eager to hear stories of rock’s dark infamy than to tell his own.

“So, what were the most drugs you’ve ever seen anyone take while you were on a rock tour?” he asks me with a feverish glint behind his oversized glasses—he tells me he will never get contact lenses—as he leads me out of the main house, across a small parking lot, where a 1960s hunter-green Mustang once owned by Tanya Tucker is parked next to a small building that resembles a turret out of an Edwardian costume drama.

Part home studio, part Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and paneled in dark wood, this setting seems far more comfortable for Carney, with his two unruly dogs head-butting his legs. He settles into a decidedly unfashionable easy chair, folding his 6-foot-3-inch body to fit its contours. While almost as tall as the late Joey Ramone, Carney wills himself to look smaller, so as not to take up too much space. An unlikely rock star, and better-looking than you’d suspect from photos, he has the gift of making everyone else seem more important than he is, and he’s more endearing because of it.

Two weeks ago in a Reddit interview, a fan asked him: “What [do] you miss the most from your non-celebrity days?”

“I don’t consider myself a celebrity,” the drummer replied. “But I miss being able to express my thoughts and not have hundreds and thousands of teenagers attack me.”

And he means it—no doubt about the millions of Justin Bieber fans who came after he mentioned their callow leader to TMZ in 2013 (“Grammys are for music, not for the money, and he’s making a lot of money. He should be happy.”) The pop tart took it as an insult, and tweeted that Carney needed to be “slapped around.”

Auerbach, for his part, certainly believes that Carney’s directness is refreshing. “We’re artists, and we love music, and we do whatever the hell we want. I don’t answer to anyone, ever,” he says, his blue-gray eyes flashing. “And Nonesuch is a record label that caters to free-thinkers. There’s no pressure to have a No. 1 record, so it’s the perfect environment for a band like us. They’ve been in business for 50 years, and this is the first No. 1 record they’ve ever had. No one expected us to have a No. 1 record.”

“So how do I feel about being No. 1? I’m a bitch,” Carney says, without irony or humor. “I totally get that it was a fight to get this. And if Michael Jackson [whose Xscape finished at No. 2] had still been alive, it wouldn’t even be a contest. We wanted to get No. 1 because we deserved it.”

But there are other things on his mind, too: the inevitable backlash from The Black Keys’ success.

It was something they anticipated. Carney had been predicting it for two years, which might have everything to do with naming the new album Turn Blue—an epithet regularly hurled by local DJ and movie host Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi (and father of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson), during his three-year run as the host of late-night Shock Theater at WJW-TV in Cleveland.

So, who were you directing the message at? Is it code?

“Yeah, it’s like, go off and die. Obviously, when we’re making the record, we’re trying to avoid thinking about what anyone was going to think about it,” says Carney. “But even before we recorded one note of this record, I knew Pitchfork was gonna fucking shit on it. And there was gonna be dissenters from the same blogs that, 10 years ago, were into us.

“I knew all this was coming, but knowing it doesn’t make it OK. When something is small, it can be adorable. But when a band starts getting bigger, everybody wants to jump on them. We started from an honest place, and I think we’re still a super honest band, [but] when you add the commercial success into it, people are looking for these ulterior motives behind everything. They think the Black Hand is moving the band forward or something.”

They’re arguably the biggest band in the U.S. right now, if not in the entire world. It’s been a steady climb, with each of their albums surpassing the next: 2010’s Brothers debuted at No. 3, then 2011’s El Camino went straight to No. 2. But, to Carney, it doesn’t seem so long since March 20, 2002, when the duo played their first gig at the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern in Cleveland in front of eight people.

“Yeah, and half of those people were our friends,” Carney says as he expels smoke and a sound that’s caught somewhere between a laugh and a cough.

But those times are over. These days, their audiences have swelled to more than 100,000, with headlining gigs at Bonnaroo and Coachella. On their El Camino tour, a Madison Square Garden date sold out in minutes, and a second day was added to accommodate the demand. They’re just about to embark on their second headlining arena tour and plan to head to Europe next year. They’re a long way from their first record deal with tiny Los Angeles indie Alive, which at the time was putting out records by the MC5, The Runaways, the Germs and GG Allin.

Run by the late rock critic Greg Shaw, the label signed The Black Keys in 2002 without ever seeing them perform live, and three months later, they unleashed The Big Come Up, starting the group on its bumpy road to world domination.

But world domination isn’t even in The Black Keys’ vocabulary, though they have three multi-platinum records and have attracted fans as disparate as Jennifer Lawrence, Robert Plant, Hilary Duff, Thom Yorke and Billy Gibbons. Rod Stewart said he wanted to work with them, and both Raekwon, RZA and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan actually did, too. None of that seems to matter to the two of them.

“Even if I hadn’t made it in the music business, I’d still be playing music,” Auerbach tells me quietly.

Photo: John Patrick Gatta

Dan Auerbach’s studio is a squat building that you’d be hard-pressed to notice if you weren’t looking for it. There isn’t an address on the outside, and nothing betrays what’s contained behind its gray exterior and high fences studded with razor wire. Located south of downtown Nashville, right past a highway under- pass, Easy Eye Sound hides in plain sight across the street from a leasing company that specializes in trucks, bulldozers and small aircraft, and down the street from a gardening store, uninvitingly called Worm’s Way.

After passing through the locked gate, 12-foot fence and under two cameras mounted over a solid steel door, I enter the inner sanctum. It’s like one of those cartoons, where an unimposing desert tent opens to a sumptuous palatial interior.

There are two vintage motorcycles sitting under a window, and a display of vintage denim vests and jean jackets arranged on a wall, like fine museum pieces, and idiosyncratic folk art in the bathroom. Clearly Auerbach has a strong and eccentric aesthetic, which likely comes from being the son of an antique dealer. It’s how he initially came to Nashville—on buying and selling trips with his dad. They’d set up stalls at Opryland and the Nashville Convention Center to sell the elder Auerbach’s outsider art, quilts, religious signage and carved folk-art artifacts. “Sometimes he’d take me to some place like Robert’s Western

World, and we’d listen to all that music,” Auerbach remembers. “Sometimes I think that’s why I decided to live down here. Because of the good times I had with my dad.”

Afterward, the two would travel further south to Memphis, then head over to Northern Mississippi, where the young Auerbach first heard the Hill Country blues of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell—music that not only formed his tastes but was also what he tried to reproduce in The Black Keys.

Besides exposing him to the blues, Charles Auerbach could also be held responsible for the uneasy psychedelia and some of the guitar runs on Turn Blue, given that the first concert he ever took his young son to was the Grateful Dead at Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland. “I was a Grateful Dead fan just because I heard it growing up, and I’m still a fan. I only saw them that one time, and really didn’t have a clue what was happening,” says Auerbach. “I didn’t know anything about the culture. Certainly not the drugs. Or even what a Deadhead was. But I was spellbound the whole time.”

“Yeah, I definitely hear Jerry Garcia in some of Dan’s runs,” says Carney. “Dan really loves the Allman Brothers. I never really listened to the Allman Brothers that much. But I really love Led Zeppelin, and Dan doesn’t listen to Led Zeppelin at all. In a weird way, Dan liking the Allman Brothers and me liking Led Zeppelin, and not vice versa, defines our classic-rock tastes. But we both love The Beatles.”

If you read into what Carney says, it was as simple as following a recipe. And maybe it was. The unlikely duo lived in the same neighborhood but weren’t close friends and couldn’t have been more different: physically, temperamentally or socially. They first played together after Auerbach came over to Carney’s house to record himself and a couple of his friends. The friends didn’t show up, so Carney filled in.

“I think we have a natural musical connection,” Auerbach says, twisting the greenstone ring he wears on the middle finger of his left hand. “There’s some sort of code in our brains that was similar enough that helped us do what we do. When we first got together, it sounded like music right from the get-go.

“I’ve played with some other people, and sometimes it’s really difficult. But when I was with Pat, it [was] just effortless. We both kind of understood a certain dynamic, and we could always do that thing. It’s not something that you could ever really plan or define and recreate, it just happens or it doesn’t.

“We auditioned a couple people when we started, and every time we would add that other person, we would sound smaller and shittier,” he continues. “We always sounded more dynamic and big and exciting when there [were] just two of us. I was listening to lots of music that was just drums and guitar. I was really getting into Fat Possum records at the time, and they were doing tours of two-piece acts: Paul Jones, T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, Robert Belfour.”

Turn Blue, released in May and produced by Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse (who has worked with the duo for the last seven years), is a departure from the early primitivism of The Black Keys’ early records, with its sophisticated soundscapes, layered found sounds, ghostly psychedelia and Auerbach’s high- flying falsettos. It’s soul music from the outer edges of the psyche, going where Auerbach never allowed himself to go: inside.

More autobiographical than anything they’ve ever done, it details Auerbach’s annus horribilis. 2012 saw him weather a messy divorce, a house fire and life as a single parent after he was granted custody of Sadie. That’s not even counting Jack White’s unhinged harangues and leaked emails about The Black Keys. (As of press time, White posted a formal apology to the band on his website.)

“I was pretty surprised by anything he said,” Auerbach says. “I hardly knew the guy.”

Oddly, the relentlessly stoic Auerbach is more forthcoming about his personal life than his so-called feud with White.

“People ask me if my divorce affects the way I write lyrics,” Auerbach says from the kitchen in Easy Eye, where he’s making him- self a cup of herbal tea. “I tell them there’s nothing it doesn’t affect.”

They started work on the album last January in a small studio in Benton Harbor, Mich., during a cold snap. The recording process took much longer than anything they’d done before. That’s mainly because Auerbach was still reeling from what had happened in his life.

When they started, he didn’t have any songs written. They went into the studio with Auerbach only having the melody for “Fever” stuck in his head.

Auerbach ended up with a suite of songs that touched on the events that had transpired in his life. There was very little artistic license. Or any filter. It was more an open letter at times.

You don’t really use your autobiography as fodder. What made it OK for you to do it this time?

“I don’t know, really,” says Auerbach, scratching his trimmed blond beard—a beard that has a Facebook page dedicated to it, as well as its own Twitter account. “Maybe I finally had something in my own personal life that grabbed me enough to want to sing about it. It was overwhelming enough, honestly, that I couldn’t really focus on anything else.”

You talked about music healing you now, and you’d never used it for that before.

“I never needed to use it like that before,” he says. “There weren’t any profound deaths in my family that I couldn’t get over. I’d never gone through anything quite so overwhelming, I guess. I was really just feeling my way through the darkness, and I was just trying to get the record done. And all Pat and Brian could do was sit back and let me finish. I think Pat did his best to steer clear and let me figure it out on my own.”

Some of the lyrics were so literal that at one point Carney and Burton tried to talk Auerbach into changing them. But he held fast and refused to.

What made it easier for Auerbach to keep his resolve was Lana Del Rey.

“I was working with Lana when I was trying to finish up lyrics for The Black Keys record,” Auerbach says. “I saw some of my lyrics were making Pat and Brian uncomfortable, and that made me second-guess myself a few times. When I started working with Lana, I noticed that, quite a few times, I would get uncomfortable when she would sing lyrics that I thought were too personal, and I realized that’s where the energy in the song really was. It showed me that I shouldn’t listen to anybody else but myself.

“By the time I was done with the record, I was sick of hearing about it. I was like, ‘I’m done. Sorry, everybody, for what you’re going to have to endure. But I had to get it out there.’”