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The Rise of the Black Keys

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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."

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Song Stories

“Santa Monica”

Everclear | 1996

After his brother and girlfriend both died of drug overdoses, Art Alexakis -- depressed and hooked on drugs himself -- jumped off the Santa Monica Pier in California, determined to die. "It was really stupid," said the Everclear frontman, who would further explore his personal emotional journey in the song "Father of Mine." "I went under the water. Then I said, 'I don't wanna die.'" The song, declaring "Let's swim out past the breakers/and watch the world die," was intended as a manifesto for change, Alexakis said. "Let the world do what it's gonna do and just live on our own."

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