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Black and not blue 

The Black Keys keep it unprofessional

If the Black Keys are, along with Detroit-based power duo the White Stripes, supposed to save blues music, singer/ guitarist Dan Auerbach isn't buying the music press hype. "I think that we have a lot more influences that most people who, maybe, play blues music nowadays, contemporary blues music. We listen to a lot of indie rock. I know Patrick grew up listening to a lot of rock 'n' roll. We both love rap music. I know when we first made our demos and our first albums, we wanted our production to sound like the RZA from Wu-Tang," he says. "And we put samples in and made it sound rough and gave the drum beats a 36 Chambers kind of sound."

What kind of bluesmen are these guys anyway? Scarcely a word gets written about the gritty duo without mentioning North Mississippi bluesmen like T-Model Ford and Junior Kimbrough (whom they cover on their 2003 sophomore release Thickfreakness). But despite Auerbach's deep reverence for these forebearers, the Black Keys would rather be known as a regular indie rock group.

"To be honest, I probably own two records that would be considered blues records," says drummer Patrick Carney. "I listen to everything but blues. I was never really into it. We do a few blues covers and Dan does the slide guitar stuff, and he's definitely influenced by North Mississippi blues. But to classify the band, I don't think we are a blues band at all."

Clearly, though, there's a very strong blues influence, at least in the way 24-year-old Akron, Ohio, native Auerbach plays guitar and projects a soulful, injured croon that seems 50 years too old to be his own. Auerbach, in fact, made a pilgrimage to Mississippi in his late teens, where he met and briefly stayed with T-Model Ford.

"When I was first teaching myself how to play guitar, when I was like 17 or 18, I was listening to blues," says Auerbach. "That's kind of what I wanted the guitar to sound like. I was into Son House and I was really into Robert Johnson and Skip James and early Sun Records -- the electrified country-blues stuff. So that's my foundation. Whatever we do has that in it because of what I've listened to."

Still, Auerbach today draws a line in the sand between his own music and the style. "There is no contemporary blues that I want to be associated with, really," Auerbach says. "A lot of it has lost most of its originality. There was always this copying in blues music, but it never got to the degree that it is now. I think people copied things in the olden days, but they would put their own mark on it. That's why Son House had his own sound and Robert Johnson had his own sound when they were basically playing the same notes, off the same weird tunings. I think it's kind of just lost its pace somewhere."

Despite their disillusionment with the blues scene, the Black Keys signed to Oxford, Miss.-based blues label Fat Possum Records. The label was first to approach them after the release of their debut disc, last year's The Big Come Up, sparked a minor frenzy that also involved several major labels. Auerbach says Fat Possum was definitely the way to go, once they established an essential understanding: "The one thing we needed to know from Fat Possum was that our CD was not going to get put in the blues rack in stores. They promised, and they've kept their promise."

Carney thinks the band's association with Fat Possum is partly responsible for the Black Keys being tagged a blues band. But he also acknowledges the label was simply the best fit for the band. "The way that [Fat Possum does] things is so unprofessional in some ways. It's backward, but that's kind of the way that we run our band. They're regular guys running the label."

Call it unprofessional or D-I-Y, the Black Keys clearly prefer less formal methods of recording. The day after signing to Fat Possum, the duo convened in the basement of Carney's former house and bashed out Thickfreakness in a 14-hour test of mettle.

The result is an album that fully portrays the Black Keys' mid-performance intensity -- Auerbach dripping with sweat and hurt, Carney assaulting his drums like a lumberjack to a tree. It's chock-full of visceral stomps, chunky, manic guitar riffs and the occasional human error. It's the kind of unpolished, independent-minded music that makes the Black Keys ideal as the closing act of this week's IG Fest.

"I think that we both have ADD [attention deficit disorder]," says Carney of the band's recording process. "We make ourselves finish it off cause we know that if we don't finish it right then, we'll lose our train of thought. I think [Thickfreakness] probably would sound a lot better if we had spent an extra week on it. But the bottom line was, if people were going to be able to get into us at our roughest, sloppiest, then that would be ideal."

And people do like the Black Keys. Thickfreakness was recently named a finalist for the Shortlist prize, an honor given each year to non-mainstream artists who release an inventive but underappreciated album. The Keys sat among definitive names in underground rock, such as Bright Eyes, Interpol, Cat Power, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Cody ChesnuTT and the winner, Damien Rice.

Despite all the attention, the Keys don't expect the current phase of their career to be a springboard to superstardom. Neither Carney nor Auerbach expressed a lot of interest in moving to a major label. Auerbach instead calls the American music scene "severely injured" and closed off to some of its more interesting elements, a sentiment echoed by organizers of the IG Fest.

Carney just likes the freedom afforded to him by the indies, without the unrealistic sales expectations that come with being on a major label.

"The only plans we have are to make records we think are really good," he says. "It's cool to be on a label where you can ship 40,000 records and they're totally psyched. Whereas, if you're on a [major] label and you ship that, I don't know what they would say. I just like being able to play music and be in a band that's doing well and making the music we want to make."

nikhil.swaminathan@creativeloafing.com

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