For the majority of the twentieth century, Akron, Ohio, was a booming industrial powerhouse known as the Rubber City. But by the time the members of the blues-rock duo the Black Keys were growing up in the Eighties, the tire factories — Goodyear, BFGoodrich, Firestone — had all shut down, and Akron had become a postindustrial ghost land. “There’s still absolutely no jobs,” says drummer Patrick Carney. “All of my friends with college degrees — they bartend or live with their parents.” On a cold March day, Carney looks into the sky to see a Goodyear blimp begin its lazy descent. “Goodyear means nothing to this town anymore,” he says. “This town was built by Goodyear, and it was sold out by the rubber companies.”
The Keys have recorded in rusty, abandoned factories and rat-infested basements, and their low-fi take on electric blues reflects the gritty reality of their decaying city. On the day after the Ohio presidential primary, the Keys are in Akron, gearing up for the release of their fifth album, Attack & Release. The disc marks the first time the pair employed an outside producer, Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse, who pushed the Keys to expand their minimalist palette.
Keys singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach is sporting a thick red beard and an I VOTED sticker on his lapel, as he steers his Subaru Forester through town. Scrunched up in the back seat is the lanky, outspoken Carney, who provides a running commentary. He’s careful to point out the gay bathhouse (“Would you like to do the interview wearing a towel?”), the “Y bridge” (“where people come to kill themselves”) and a strip club, where his friend “got his penis touched for the first time.” We slow down in front of an old house, site of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, in 1935. Carney proudly points out that there are exactly twelve steps leading to the front door. “Dead serious,” he says. “It’s fuckin’ original.”
Auerbach and Carney are fourth-generation Akronites, and they became friends as students at Firestone High School. “We were just two kids in the neighborhood,” says Auerbach, who started his career as an insecure teenage “bedroom” guitarist. Carney bought a drum set with money earned washing dishes, and the pair started holding jam sessions at his house. “We started playing as a two-piece,” says Auerbach. “I’d played with other people, and it was pointless. Pat and I could always make something that would almost sound like a song.” Twice they auditioned a third member. “One of the guys wore sunglasses for the entire practice, which got on my nerves,” says Carney. “Not letting anybody else in the picture was the best decision we ever made.” Auerbach adds, “Pat’s timing is weird, but I’ve always been able to stay with him. The music has to move a bit.”
Despite little knowledge about the music industry and virtually no money, the Keys managed to break out of Akron on the strength of their debut, The Big Come Up, recorded using two microphones in Carney’s basement. At the time, the duo hadn’t played a single live show.
In the last six years, on albums like Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory and Magic Potion, the Keys have honed their primitive, cathartic brand of rock & roll. Carney’s drum style is loose and open, leaving ample space for Auerbach’s raspy, soulful vocals and ragged guitar tone, originally inspired by Chicago blues great Hound Dog Taylor. “Raw, electric shit,” Auerbach says.
Last year, the Keys were commissioned by Danger Mouse to write songs for a comeback album by Ike Turner. Even after Turner passed away, Danger Mouse still wanted to work with the Keys. Songs from the Turner project form the core of the new album. “I love them,” says Danger Mouse. “They have such a dirty, heavy sound, and they’re the kind of people I probably would’ve hung out with in school.” In fourteen straight days, they recorded basic tracks and, as a team, added bass, keyboards and other subtle sonic embellishments. They enlisted Pat’s uncle, Ralph Carney, a Tom Waits sideman, to play flute and clarinets. “It was just fun,” says Auerbach. “I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
For the Keys, the most frequently asked question is why they haven’t moved out of Akron, which they regard with pride (and a little embarrassment, as we drive by crack corners and bankrupt businesses). “All of our families are here, and I like Akron — it just needs a boost,” says Carney, who lives a mile from where he grew up, and recently married his longtime sweetheart. “It would be so easy to pack everything up and move to Brooklyn, but anyone can move to Brooklyn. Only some people can be stuck in a place like this and have to deal with it. It’s more of a challenge. It’s like playing Contra, without the cheat code.”
This story is from the April 17th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.