The Rise of the Black Keys

How two Rust Belt refugees became a super-charged stomp machine

black keys 1148
Theo Wenner
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
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No one in this busy Hollywood organic coffee shop looks like they might have just sold out Madison Square Garden – least of all, perhaps, the compact, thick-bearded dude in the jean jacket shuffling toward a corner table. Dan Auerbach's looks are striking enough: sharp-angled nose, bright blue eyes, floppy reddish hair. But his denim-on-denim outfit says "parking-lot attendant" as much as it does "rock star" ("I'm not afraid of the Canadian tuxedo," he says, though at least the pale-blue jacket doesn't match his black jeans) – and he carries himself with an almost willful lack of flamboyance.

Sitting down with his coffee, he begins to process some news he got via e-mail a couple of minutes ago. "Do you see my brains coming out of my ears?" asks Auerbach, 32, who's the singer and guitarist for the Black Keys – as well as the bass player, at least in the studio. "Oh, my God! What the fuck is going on?" Effusiveness isn't his style, but Auerbach has his reasons. After seven albums and a decade of hard touring, his two-man band from Akron, Ohio, has completed an improbable journey from basement recording project to arena-rock act: This morning, the Black Keys filled New York's biggest venue in less than 15 minutes.

Nevertheless, no one here is paying the slightest attention to the band's frontman. "That's my whole thing, man," Auerbach says, pushing hair off his forehead with a glance at his oblivious fellow customers. "Maybe if I had on a velvet suit and a top hat and cane – some kind of look, you know what I mean? Everybody who reaches that kind of level always has a look. Are glasses and beard enough? I don't think so... It's not supposed to happen to bands like us. It's really not. It's crazy."

It kind of is. The Keys – Auerbach and bespectacled drummer Patrick Carney, 31 – released their first album, The Big Come Up, back in 2002: It was a funky, fuzzy low-fi riff-fest that drew heavily from the eccentric Mississippi blues of Auerbach's hero, juke-joint performer Junior Kimbrough – while adding incongruous touches like hip-hop beats and a tossed-off cover of the Beatles' "She Said, She Said." At that point, both Keys insist, they hadn't heard the music of another bluesy Rust Belt duo that was getting a lot of attention that year. But that hardly stopped people from dismissing the Keys as an off-brand White Stripes, and even Jack White has beef: "I'm a lot more to do with Jay-Z than the Black Keys," he told me in 2010, and though Auerbach won't talk about the incident, White apparently blocked him from entering his studio in Nashville not long ago. (Responds White: "Anything you've ever heard anyone say about me is 100 percent accurate.")

As the decade progressed, trends came and went – garage rock, dance rock, emo – while the Keys stayed in their own sealed-off world, their sound gradually evolving. "I wasn't even thinking about songwriting on the early records, just music and the groove," says Auerbach. "It was absolutely just fucking around – taking old blues riffs, making up lyrics on the spot, and turning it into a song. Then we started sort of digging into these records that we love, and trying to figure out why it is we love them so much, besides the sonics." Auerbach countered his high-testosterone, hellhound-trailed growl with a sultry falsetto and elastic crooning; influences from Memphis soul to T. Rex to rockabilly came to the forefront; their hooks got sharper – especially after they recruited Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton as an on-and-off partner in 2008, and began recording in studios instead of basements.

They put all they'd learned into 2010's Brothers, unearthing fully formed, deep-grooved, almost spookily timeless pop songs that captured the dusty vibe of the soul-sampling RZA productions they loved. With rock at one of its lowest commercial ebbs, they became one of a very few young guitar bands to reach the masses. And unlike, say, Kings of Leon, it looks like they're doing it with two smash albums in a row: Brothers won three Grammys and sold nearly a million copies; their new album, the sleeker, more relentless El Camino, just debuted at Number Two – blocked from the top only by a Michael Bublé Christmas album that Carney suggests would be a good choice to soundtrack a suicide.

Their new ubiquity has had predictable consequences. There are sellout grumbles in indie-land, and some fans from the old days are feeling alienated: "My Black Keys shirts have now become undershirts," one wrote, in a message-board post best imagined in the voice of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy.

Patrick Carney is pretty sure he knows what's ailing his chosen genre these days. "Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world," he says, blowing cigarette smoke out the window of his rented East Village loft a few days before the band heads to L.A. "So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don't like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it's like, 'Fuck you,' honestly."

There's an endearingly cartoonish quality to Carney, as if everything about him is slightly off-scale: He's at least six feet four; the frames of his Buddy Holly glasses are deliberately a little too big for his face; he's both a social guy who makes friends easily and a collector of oversize grudges who routinely works himself into fits of semicomic rage. He has to remove his glasses onstage so they don't fly off – nearly blind, he slams through exhilarating, off-kilter beats as if he'd never seen anyone else play drums before, in a hunched, painful-looking posture: "I get really bad hand cramps," he says, "and sometimes my sternum gets all fucked up."

As he drums, his face is often contorted in what looks like fury. It's actually fear and self-loathing. "I suck at the drums, so it's terrifying," he says. "Just trying to keep it together. I see a lot of comments on Twitter and stuff about how ugly I am, how bad I am at the drums, how awkward I look, and I'm like, yeah, I agree with most of those things. The thing is, what I can't do is individually go up to these people and call them each out for what they are, just by judging their picture, and I'm the kind of person who would actually do that to somebody."

It's nearly 2 p.m., and Carney needs to head up to the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown for a Late Show With David Letterman performance. First, though, he has to "see what shirts make me look less fat" – right now, he's got on a blue button-front from J. Crew, a brand he wears as a sort of anti-hipster statement – and clean up the apartment.

He and his fiancee, Emily, moved from a Lower East Side walk-up to a house with a pool in Nashville in 2010, but they got restless there – so they rented this pied-à-terre, a fully furnished loft in a building with neighbors including Fabrizio Moretti, Bret Easton Ellis and, apparently, Tom Cruise (who may or may not live on the same floor). The place has a hotel-room feel – the only signs that anyone in particular lives here are the empty whole-wheat-pizza box by the kitchen, the high-end tube-amped stereo by the TV (Carney blasts the Johnny Burnette Trio's oft-covered 1956 tune "The Train Kept A-Rollin'," which he says inspired part of the Keys' new single, "Lonely Boy"), a recent Rolling Stone on the coffee table and oddly, two matching copies of The Hunger Games.

Carney met Emily not long after a brutal divorce from a woman he had dated since he was 20. In a Rolling Stone feature last year, he complained about his ex-wife – and she responded by writing a 5,000-word essay about their tumultuous marriage for the website Salon. Now, Carney is determined not to say a word about his ex in print, and he doesn't.

Carney empties a trash can, struggling to tie the too-small garbage bags left by a previous tenant – he's never spent enough time here to buy his own. "We're doing pretty well financially," he says, "and they don't have state income tax in Nashville, so that basically pays for this apartment." After talking real estate for a few more minutes, he pauses. "I'm still afraid of being broke," says Carney, who worked as a telemarketer just before the Keys started. "It doesn't seem like that long ago. I know what it's like to be in a situation where it seems there's no way out."

If the Keys ever had any ambivalence about pursuing commercial success, they put it aside around 2004, after they came home from a monthlong series of European dates that somehow resulted in a loss of $3,000. They had turned down a six-figure opportunity to use a song in a mayonnaise ad the year before. A new offer came in from Nissan, and after a lengthy debate, Carney and Auerbach shifted their position. Says Carney, "We said, 'You know what? Fuck this. Let's take the fucking money. No one's hearing our music, we're not selling any albums.'"

Brothers was a licensing bonanza – the single "Tighten Up" alone appeared in a Subaru ad, a soccer video game, a Gossip Girl episode and at least two movies – and it got to the point where some brands were even using Black Keys sound-alike songs. But the Keys plan to scale it back for El Camino. "When no one's buying your records, it's easy to justify selling a song," says Carney. "But once you start selling records, you can't really justify having two songs in Cadillac commercials. It looks greedy. And it is greedy. This whole music thing should be about music."

With the Keys' success, their audience has changed – there's been an infusion of the kind of frat boys whose presence used to so distress Kurt Cobain. (Calling their last album Brothers may have served as an open invitation.) But the band is determined to strike a welcoming stance. "Some bands have audiences where you feel like you're just hanging out with clones of yourself – you never meet anybody new," Carney says, over a lunch of pork buns and authentic Japanese ramen at the nearby restaurant Ippudo. "I like the idea of our fans being a wide spectrum. Whenever anybody talks about being uncomfortable about being at a show because there's a different type of person there, that's just straight fucking ignorance. I wouldn't want somebody like that to be a fan of us."

Back in the coffee shop, Auerbach leans against an exposed brick wall, sipping his coffee, paging through a copy of LA Weekly; he'd look boyish if not for sleepless semicircles under his eyes, almost garish against pale, freckled skin. He's never slept well. No matter when he goes to bed, he's up with the sun: Last night, he went to sleep around 3:30 a.m., then bolted awake by 7:30 as light streamed into his hotel room. He lay there in bed a while, thoughts racing. "I've always got something that I wanna try to be doing," he says. "There's always something to check on. I'm not very good at just letting things slide off my back."

He's already thinking about the Black Keys' next album, despite recording two of them in the past two years: "I know that we're going to make the next record differently, but I don't know how." He also has a demanding second career producing records in his own vintage-gear-packed Nashville studio, most recently for Dr. John. Then there's his four-year-old daughter, Sadie, whom he'll be seeing mostly by Skype for a good chunk of the next year. "It's hard," says Auerbach, who's been married for four and a half years. "But it's such a fickle business. These people who love us now are not gonna give a shit about us, maybe, in five years. You just gotta get while the gettin's good."

Auerbach is happiest when he's recording new music. "You make a record and then you have three months off, that's when you should make the next record," he says. "We make up a song every day. We could make a fucking record every week if we didn't have to tour." Just before the Grammys last year, the Keys got worried about burning out on what looked like endless touring ahead: As Carney remembers, they decided, "If we're going to have to tour on Brothers again, anyway, we might as well make a new record and tour them both at once." They stood on a New York street in the middle of a snowstorm and resolved to cancel an Australian tour and record what became El Camino instead – even though a lack of insurance meant the cancellation would cost them $100,000.

Auerbach has a tendency to get lost in his own head. ("There is a strong genetic thing in my wife's family, where many of them are absent-minded professors," says his dad, Chuck Auerbach. "And Danny certainly got that.") At a New York afterparty for a solo show a couple of years back, Dan ignored his guests for a long while, instead opting to silently zone out to obscure soul 45s the DJ was playing. "I'm not good at faking it," he says. "I can't be insincere about something. I don't like just talking for talking's sake."

Underneath his jean jacket, Auerbach is wearing a snazzy new snap-button shirt – a gift from the Levi's corporation, whose representatives met with the band the night before and gave them a bunch of free stuff. The reps also made an unsuccessful effort to get them to pose for pictures while wearing jackets the company mocked up with Black Keys-themed patches on the back. "They had this real shitty patch that's a rip-off of Pat's drum-head logo, and then, like, an Ohio patch," says Auerbach. "But it was, like, a brand-new Ohio patch, it just looked all new and gross. Ugh. Come on, man. That was pretty awkward, I was just, like, 'This needs work. I'm not feeling it. You guys work on this jacket.'"

Soon enough, someone finally recognizes the rock star: A twentysomething bro in a gray newsboy cap inches over, introduces himself as a big fan, asks for a picture (Auerbach obliges), then makes an ill-advised bid for cred by noting his love for the Keys' first album, which he's convinced is called The Big Comeback. As soon as he leaves, Auerbach snorts. "The Big Comeback, that's the best one!" he says. "I love that! It's like when people diss you on the Internet and spell all the words wrong." But the fan should get credit for effort: This week, people keep approaching the Black Keys to congratulate them on the release of their second album.

It's getting ever so slightly chilly tonight in Los Angeles, and as far as the management of the Chateau Marmont hotel is concerned, that just will not do: They've installed blazingly hot heat lamps in every corner of the tented outdoor restaurant behind their grand old castle. The Keys are in town to play a video-game awards show and KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas. The radio station sprang for a free set of hotel rooms in a cheesy, convention-friendly hotel in a touristy section of Hollywood. But after one night, the Keys lost patience, and decided to book their first stay at the Marmont, where even the room keys are fancier – there's a purple ribbony thing attached to them that Auerbach refers to as a "model tickler."

Across from our table, the Keys spot ex-model Janice Dickinson, surrounded by what looks like a bunch of currently employed models; to our right is a group of Ken-doll-looking guys in suits. Jason Segel is nowhere in sight at the moment, but he'll turn up repeatedly over the weekend. "I'm assuming everyone is Pauly Shore's cousin," says Carney. This, more or less, is the Black Keys' world now. But they haven't made a full psychological adjustment. In their heads, they're still the guys who made all-night drives hopped up on trucker speed in a urine-scented minivan like the one pictured on their new album cover; who once drove 20 hours through the desert with no air conditioning, developing simultaneous nosebleeds from the dry air; who played a 6:30 a.m. gig on a local TV show called Good Morning Salt Lake City, in front of eight elderly people and a fake fireplace. ("Afterward, they do an interview," Carney recalls, "and they're like, so why a two-piece? We said we're normally a 12-piece jazz big band, but the other 10 pieces just couldn't be with us on this tour.")

There was some fun along the way, of course. "We ate mushrooms in the van one time, going from Amsterdam to Paris," Auerbach says. "We opened up the door at one point at a truck stop, fully on mushrooms, and it was like when they went into Willy Wonka's. I haven't done them in a long time, but mushrooms rule."

But the Keys never stopped feeling like outsiders. "Coming from a broke-down town, you just have a chip on your shoulder," says Auerbach. "We see these bands coming from New York City, they have trust funds and they tour and always have nicer vans than us, nicer equipment, cool clothes and shit, everybody knew each other. We didn't know anybody."

Auerbach and Carney each dropped out of college to pursue music, and didn't have family money to protect them. "We don't have any other option," Auerbach says. "We don't, we never did."

"I can still wash dishes," says Carney, who's on his third vodka Greyhound of the evening. "I have really bad eczema, so it's going to be a little bit of a holdup, but I could probably get through it. I can fucking teach you how to wash some motherfucking dishes... When we were in ninth grade, we were well aware that if we wanted to go to a good school, it wasn't a possibility – that we didn't have the money. So it's like, what do you have from there? You have rock & roll! And you know what, no motherfucker who knew that they could fucking get bailed out of the rock & roll dream could really play rock & roll."

Carney is picking up steam now; Auerbach is just watching him, quietly amused.

"You get shit when you don't pretend you're fucking too cool for school, and we are not too cool for school! We are just basically teaching the class people don't want to attend, and the class is, How to Fucking Make a Living Doing What You Love 101. And also, How to Fucking Beat the Haters Off With a Stick and Let Them Suck Your Dick. That's the 200-level class."

"That was very poetic," Auerbach says.

On occasion, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney will indulge in a quick hug – a sign that two guys who barely knew each other when the band started have come a long way. It's still awkward, and not just because of their seven-inch height difference ("It's like, where do I put my arms?" says Auerbach). As close as they've become, their strategy for surviving a potentially endless future together may be to ignore each other as much as possible: Backstage, waiting for TV performances, they can let long stretches of time pass without any direct interaction.

The two men, born 11 months apart, grew up just houses away from each other in Akron. But before they ended up jamming in Carney's basement late in high school, they had hardly spoken. They had each become obsessed with music at an early age. Carney's dad, Jim, a general-assignment reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, played him Beatles and Stones records as a child (and bought him Vanilla Ice and Weird Al tapes); he absorbed the classic-rock canon by seventh grade or so, and moved on to indie rock by high school. He outfitted his basement with drums and recording equipment in hopes that it would help him get a band together – though he was mostly interested in playing guitar.

Auerbach's dad is a folk-art and antiques dealer, and a self-described "member of the Mr. Natural generation," with a ZZ Top beard, who has written lyrics for Dan (including the solo ballad "Whispered Words"). "The only way I could rebel is by getting an office job and wearing a suit every day," says Dan. Dan's father gave him an eclectic education in American roots music: Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Son House, the Cadillacs, the Grateful Dead. He remembers his son singing a Little Anthony and the Imperials song at age 5. He took Dan to a Dead show when he was 15. ("I'm like, what's going on? What are these sheets of little square paper, Dad?")

On Auerbach's mom's side, everyone was musical: "Ever since I was a kid, family reunions, they'd play and sing together in a circle, do two- and three-part harmonies," Auerbach says. "Playing old spiritual songs, bluegrass songs, blues songs, folk songs, a lot of Stanley Brothers tunes, a lot of Bill Monroe songs, which are basically blues songs sung by white people."

Auerbach links the blues and soul inflections in his voice to those family roots. Because he sounds more like Joe Cocker than Stephen Malkmus, he says "indie-rock nerds" have hassled him about his voice, more or less accusing him of minstrelsy. "That's just the way I sing," he says. "It's not like I'm trying to sound like a black guy or something." Guided by a blues-snob uncle, Auerbach developed a very particular taste in the genre, leaning toward the atmospheric and untutored. "I never listened to any British blues, I couldn't stand it. I didn't listen to any Chicago blues, really, besides Howlin' Wolf, and even then, I'd listen to his Memphis recordings way more often – Moanin' the Moonlight, that kind of shit."

He finds a lot of classic rock boring and "too normal." There is at least one notable exception, however: "I love Creedence," he says. "If there's any musician I've ever aspired to be like, it's probably Fogerty and Creedence, because, even in the age of hippiedom, they were just dressed way normal, and what they did was kind of timeless. It's such a mixture of a lot of things that I love, like rockabilly and blues music and folk."

Carney's younger brother, Michael, was friends with Auerbach's younger brother, Geoff. "Dan and Pat were like very different people in high school," says Michael, who went on to design all the Keys' album art, winning a Grammy for Brothers last year. "Pat was a total weirdo, and Dan was much more reserved and very cool. Not to say Pat wasn't cool, but Dan was high school cool. I mean that in the most loving way. You know, the Carney brothers, the girls wouldn't look at us. But they liked the Auerbachs."

In high school, Auerbach was captain of the soccer team, and he smoked a lot of pot, which has left some of his school memories a little fuzzy. ("Dan had hair down to here in high school," Pat says, "and you'd see him in the hallways and he'd look all glazed out, chilled out." He rolls his eyes diagonally in his head to demonstrate.)

"I remember my teacher smelling alcohol on my breath one time and sending me to the principal's office," says Auerbach. I don't remember what happened then, I might have got suspended... I literally didn't do homework ever and I was in honors classes. What does that say about this fucking school system?"

Carney, who looks sweetly nerdy in grade-school pictures, had been picked on growing up (an acquaintance of Auerbach's once punched Carney in the face two days in a row, and Carney's mom pressed charges – the kid ended up in juvenile detention). By high school, he had embraced outcast status, wearing huge glasses and doing his best to be as odd and obnoxious as possible. "I remember walking by you in the hall one time," Auerbach says to Carney at the Marmont, "and you had glasses on, buzzed head, and you were just walking along, dragging your head on the lockers."

Carney laughs – they've never had this conversation before. "I was trying to pretend I was eccentric just to get a rise out of other people," he says. "I was just doing it to get people to call me a faggot, basically."

Auerbach winces. "People called you a faggot in high school?"

"Yeah, but it was all the dudes that were swimmers, and you'd find out after high school that they used to sleep together naked or do weird shit."

Auerbach and Carney had an instant, uncanny connection the first time they played together. "It was immediate, we could immediately make something," says Auerbach. "His drumming was so all over the place, but because I listened to lots of blues that was all over the place, lots of fingerpicked stuff where time signatures would stretch, I could follow him immediately."

Forging a relationship beyond business took a while. "We never really hung out, we just were really good at making music together," says Auerbach. "But we did become friends, and we became people who really genuinely love and care for each other."

The biggest strain in their relationship came in the months before Carney's divorce. Auerbach and Carney's ex-wife didn't get along ("I really hated her from the start and didn't want anything to do with her"), and he found it increasingly impossible to talk to Carney while he was in the relationship – which may be one reason why he released a solo album, Keep It Hid, in 2009. "It's like, Pat is, like, really out of his mind right now. I just remember playing him songs, and the only thing I would get out of him was, like, 'That's tight.' I'm like, OK, fine. We were probably both being uncommunicative. But the circumstances that were surrounding all of that were just making everything worse. I mean, I really don't want to keep talking about his ex and the relationship, but it was just horrific."

Carney went into therapy "to deal with some other problems I can't talk about, basically. I had to unwind a mindfuck." He got a divorce, and the Black Keys were soon back in the studio. Carney's ex-wife, however, took aim at Auerbach in her Salon essay, accusing him of indie apostasy: "Dan was a soccer jock who idolized Dave Matthews and G. Love and Special Sauce... He was a real macho type who walked around town like a bulldog."

Auerbach denies any affinity for Dave Matthews, but cops to the G. Love phase. "I remember, being in high school, listening to Lightnin' Hopkins, and hearing G. Love – he fingerpicked and played a lot of Lightnin' Hopkins riffs. I thought that was cool. It's like, you do one thing when you're hanging out with your buddies in high school. And then I had my own personal world that I lived in, where I went home and listened to Robert Johnson. She didn't know that, and really didn't know me at all."

Ultimately, says Auerbach, it comes down to this: "I got her man. You know what I mean? He sided with me and not her, so she hates me for that."

The Black Keys – Auerbach and Carney, plus touring bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist/rhythm guitarist John Wood – are standing onstage in a Los Angeles amphitheater, and thousands of fans are singing as one. Which is great, except that they're singing a Mumford & Sons song. The KROQ concert uses a rotating stage, and the Keys are on the side facing the rear of the venue: They're hanging around in the dark, waiting for the Mumfords to finish and the stage to turn. "We're gonna sound like Slayer compared to this," Carney says during one yearning ballad.

This setup can pose problems: At last year's KROQ show, Florence and the Machine were still playing "Dog Days Are Over" when the stage began to rotate with the Keys on the other side – the Keys were forced to stare down the baffled audience in silence while Florence finished the song. (Patrick is polite enough not to mention the incident to Florence Welch when they meet backstage today.)

But the Keys are much bigger this year – they're the night's second-billed headliner, trumped only by Jane's Addiction. Auerbach doesn't seem to be a fan – he jokes about Dave Navarro "polishing his nipple rings" – and when he finds out Jane's have a preshow jam room backstage, he imagines barging in, picking up a guitar and saying, "You're doing it wrong!"

In any case, it's the Keys' dressing room that attracts the most celebrities – a long-haired Val Kilmer hangs outside, accompanied by a teenage son in a leather jacket, and their pal Colin Hanks is around, looking eerily like his dad, circa Big.

As Mumford & Sons finish with "The Cave," the Keys ready themselves, Carney brushing his sticks against his snare, and Auerbach hopping in place. Auerbach squints at me in the darkness. "Any final questions?" he says.

"Are you ready?" I ask.

He ponders the query seriously, as the audience roars for the Mumfords. "I hope so," he says, fingering his guitar, a funky-looking National electric. "Ready as I'll ever be." He takes a breath and smiles. The stage begins to turn, spinning the Black Keys toward the lights and the crowd.

This story is from the January 19th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1148: January 19, 2012