Patrick Carney on Making the New Black Keys Album and Looking Forward to the Road
Last August and September were fruitful months for the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney: On August 28th, he and his now-wife, Michelle Branch, had a baby, and on September 5th, he and Dan Auerbach went into the studio to start work on the Keys’ first album in five years. That album, “Let’s Rock,” is out now (Barack Obama just put the track “Go” on his summer playlist), and next month, the Keys will embark on a U.S. arena tour with Modest Mouse.
“Somehow my 17-year-old self has manifested some sort of dream, and it’s playing arenas with Modest Mouse,” says Carney, who looks back on the creation of the album and more.
To what extent was this album a reaction to your last one, Turn Blue?
With such a decent-sized break between records, the last one really didn’t have much to do with this one. The last record has a more dramatic, more serious tone. I think that we’d gone through a lot in the couple years leading up to Turn Blue. A lot of it was positive, and some of it was negative. And I think Dan had some real personal stuff going on with the divorce and things like that. And I think it started off as more of a mellow kind of record. It’s been six years since we made that record! I can’t even remember. I can kinda remember making [2003’s] Thickfreakness. There was no thought involved — the thought was just, “These are the songs we’re writing.” And I think we’ve always tried to be in that zone. Even on Turn Blue, it was just like, “Oh yeah, this is just what’s coming out. It’s what we’re gonna do.”
So, for this record, I think there was no discussion about what we wanted to do. And neither one of us had been in the studio with each other since 2013. So it was a five year break between working. We’ve both been in the studio a bunch since then, but for whatever reason, I think we’d just taken some time apart from working with each other. And I think initially, I wasn’t really apprehensive if we were gonna be able to get anything cool, I just was more apprehensive about how Dan wanted to work and how I wanted to work and how that was gonna jive. And we just fell right back into it really, day one. We wrote two songs the first day. And after three weeks of it, we got halfway through the record, maybe a little bit further, and then we decided to take a break for a couple weeks, not to put pressure on ourselves. And we just slowly chiseled up the record, here and there, through the rest of the fall.
You did the usual thing where you come into the studio with nothing written, right?
That’s basically how we’ve always done it, yeah. And that’s what we did here. Pre-production is really good for certain bands. Certain bands really need to do it. And I encourage a lot of bands to do it. But essentially the way that Dan and I write is how we record. We recorded our first two records ourselves anyway. But I think we just have this thing like, “OK, what we’re making now is just gonna be the final song anyway, so what’s the point of going back and fucking with it?”
Certain records, we have done pre-production, like Attack and Release, and Brothers, to a certain degree, for like four or five songs on that record. But you know, when I work with a band, depending on how quick the band is, if I’m producing, I prefer to work the same way that Dan and I do. I prefer to just start from scratch.
How much did you think of the context of a rock album in 2019 when you made it?
Our mentality was: “Let’s just make something that we like, and hope that people like it.” And that’s what we did. We didn’t think about the context of the state of music in 2019, which is very complex and freaks me out. No I liked really got played on the radio from 1994 to 2001. None of the bands I liked were really getting played on the radio anyway. And I just have faith that there’s some stuff brewing underneath that is really good, I know that to be the truth. But you know, as far as what’s considered alternative and things like that, things are changing, things are moving. I just find myself listening to more direct- sounding shit. Like if I put on The Damned’s first record, it makes me feel good.
Were the charts on your mind at all?
To be completely straight with you, when Turn Blue came out, after all the work we put in, and all the luck that had happened to get us into the position to potentially have a number one record, I really wanted it. I wanted to have a number one album. It meant something to me. And what’s changed since 2014 is, if I look at the charts, there’s so much streaming manipulation. And if you look at, how is it that artists can have, like, a billion streams, but can’t sell out an arena in Sacramento? You know what I mean? Like, what the fuck’s happening?
And it’s all meaningless. But his year, I’ve been through … My uncle passed away, I had a close family member have a serious, life-or-death medical thing. [Onetime Keys bassist and prolific musician] Richard Swift passed away. It all started being like, “Life is fucking short.” I share a huge part of my life with Dan, and it’s important to me to make something with him, because it made me feel happy, and it made me feel reconnected to a part of me that I’d been kind of putting on hold for a few years. And because of this, I realize putting things in perspective of what’s important. It’s like, are the charts important? No. Is making music with Dan important? Yes.
How else has your perspective changed?
When we put out [first single] “Lo Hi,” I saw a couple of things written about it that were snarky, and a couple of things that were positive. But the thing that ultimately put it back in perspective for me was that I saw thousands of people commenting on the YouTube thing, which is usually territory for people to just drop fucking hate. But, in the YouTube comments, people were genuinely excited about the band whether they liked the song. It’s like, “Oh yeah, Dan and I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, and we’ve had an impact on people.” And how incredible is that? Does it matter about getting on the charts? No, and it never did. I care about my family; I care about making music; I care about rock & roll. And there’s a lot of stuff on the radio that I don’t give two shits about. Which hasn’t changed since I was 16, back then the shit that was getting played on the radio was, like, Savage Garden. And I never cared about that. I was listening to Modest Mouse.
Were there some false starts for songs on the album?
There’s always some false starts. I kind of assembled an archive of all the stuff we’ve never put out or finished. There’s about 60 songs. I think it’s 55. And I think, from this record, there’s about 13 or 15 songs that we started and didn’t finish. And two that I think we did completely finish. But every record, there’s a few. And now that they stopped making the Twilight movies, we have nothing to do with them. We can’t put them on the soundtrack to Twilight.
It’s interesting that you guys didn’t discuss a direction for this record, but you landed on such a specific Seventies boogie sound.
I think that, where our style of music converges, when Dan and I make stuff, I think that it always comes out sounding Seventies. And it’s weird, because, growing up, I wasn’t particularly into it. I mean, I loved Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and stuff like that. But there’s this point in the Seventies — ’73, ’74 — where, as I get older, I just realize that there’s so much there. It’s basically once 16-track recording became popular, there’s all these songs from that specific era. It isn’t even the songs that I like necessarily as much as the sonic qualities of that. Like T. Rex, Electric Warrior, or The Hollies, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” Like 10cc has a bunch of cool sounding records from that era. There’s just so many … King Crimson, Pink Floyd, ZZ Top. You know what I mean? So I think that really, it’s more of an aesthetic thing. Dan and I have our separate tastes, but our shared aesthetic is usually mid-Sixties to mid-Seventies, and that’s about it.
It’s probably harder than ever for the Black Keys to have a hit single right now.
We wouldn’t go in there and want to make something that sounded too contemporary. Even a song like “Howlin’ For You,” it maybe sounds contemporary now because there’s a lot of commercials or something that sound like that because of that song. Warner Bros. straight up told us that it wasn’t a single, but yet it’s our third most-streamed song on Spotify.
You know what, basically our whole career was based on not having singles that worked at radio. And still, to this day, I don’t think we’ve ever really had a successful single in England. But yeah, we have gotten to the point where we could play a couple of nights in arenas in London, or whatever. But I don’t know. Did Black Sabbath singles really resonate in the pop charts? It’s hard to contextualize any of this stuff.
A band like Led Zeppelin in 1971, who had access to FM radio, which is a freeform format, felt like they shouldn’t issue a single. Then we’re all fucked in 2019, because you’re dealing with a world where you’re not sure what any of these things mean anymore. It’s confusing to even care about it. Because what does matter is like, do people care about your band? And then that answer is like, “Yeah.” Then it’s like, “Then what?” Then it comes to a whole different thing, which is, “What am I supposed to do, as a guy who’s been doing this for 20 years?” It’s like, I hope we want to go play some shows and play music for like a 15-year-old kid, who’s not seen us yet, and maybe for the 45-year-old dude who grew up listening to us in college. And I think that’s the biggest thrill out of all this shit.
Dan and I have opened for a ska band for 50 bucks, and we’ve fucking headlined Coachella. And really, the most thrilling thing, at this point, is just knowing that people still give a shit, to a certain degree. And I think, is there anything left to prove? I think that we can still make a lot of cool records. But I think proving something on the scale of sales, or something like that, it’s less important really, personally.