The Rise of the Black Keys

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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."

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