The Rise of the Black Keys

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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.

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