“We’re young and road-ready,” the Black Keys wrote in a letter that accompanied their first demo. It was a bold statement; it was also completely untrue. “We hadn’t played any shows yet,” singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach says with a laugh. “Whatever. It was a white lie.”
For The Big Come Up — the fifth installment of Rolling Stone Films’ “Mastering the Craft” series presented by Patrón — Auerbach and Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney recount the acts of randomness that led to their debut, sharing hilarious stories about their early days and rare footage from their first-ever gig.
The pair’s first meetings were typical childhood hangouts in their Akron, Ohio hometown: “We’d trade baseball cards and play whiffle ball like all the neighborhood kids,” Carney remembers. As they grew older, both future Keys were simultaneously falling in love with music. Their brothers, who were close friends, brought the pair together again. But their casual sessions ended when Auerbach and Carney lost touch for about a year: The guitarist went to college and obsessed over music instead of attending class. Auerbach ultimately ditched school and started aggressively gigging around town, eventually realizing he needed a demo to score more shows. He turned to Carney, who had his own home-recording setup. And it turned out to be a very fortuitous call.
“His band never showed up, so we decided we would just record some shit,” says Carney. They chopped up Auerbach’s bar songs and tried to make the recordings sound like the skits before Wu-Tang Clan tracks. “It basically sounds like we were huffing gas – in a good way,” he adds.
That recording became the primitive demo tape they sent around (with their hopeful letter) — and it eventually reached Alive Records owner Patrick Boissel, who was instantly charmed.
“I just played it and I was blown away,” Boissel says. “Turns out, it was two people in a basement together that never played a record before, that had never toured, that had no fans – that were basically coming out of nowhere. I had to make a decision: Do I want to work with them or not. So I took a chance.”
With a promise that the label would put out an album, the Keys had to get serious and book a show. “I’d never played the drums in front of anybody,” Carney recalls (and the band’s parents remember there being plenty of elbow room at their first gig at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom). But they had the sense something special was happening. Soon the group’s debut had a four-star review in the pages of Rolling Stone. “I showed it to my dad, and my dad basically started crying,” Carney recalls.
Today, Auerbach still appreciates how the album captured their earliest spark on tape: “It was our first attempts at ever writing music,” he says. “You get to witness a band from their inception, as like, musicians really.”
And Carney ultimately isn’t shocked that happenstance session led to a multiplatinum career: “Most things in this band are random accidents.”