The Rise of the Black Keys

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

January 19, 2012
black keys 1148
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Theo Wenner

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."

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