Things have been on the upswing for the quirky pair Dan Auerbach (guitarist) and Patrick Carney (drummer) of the Black Keys.
Since signing to Warner Bros. subsidiary Nonesuch for 2006's Magic Potion, their songs have been featured in commercials starring Heidi Klum and Shaun White, and on TV shows including "Friday Night Lights" and "The O.C.".
The Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo has fully emerged from the shadow of its Rust Belt cousins, the White Stripes, with the release of its fifth full-length, Attack & Release, produced by Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.
But the real reason for the Keys' unadulterated joy? Auerbach and Carney recently accomplished the greatest feat a band could hope for – next to quitting the day job.
They got a tour bus.
"We said we'd never do it, but it's awesome," Carney says as he drives to the drum shop for some pretour provisions. "Dan and I have basically relived Thelma and Louise. We've done some wacky-ass touring, like clowns playing bar mitzvahs. We're both cheapskates; that's what it boils down to. We want to know we don't have to work for months on end when we get back, so we'd rather suffer on the road."
Carney cites the old Pavement lyric, "You've got to pay your dues before you pay the rent," as he reflects on the crazy six-year ride that began when he and Auerbach dropped out of school to pursue their dream.
They worked for a time mowing lawns together before embarking on their first tour to support their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. Their gritty, bluesy garage sound came at the right time, and the Keys proved particularly apt at delivering a raw, dirty tone that sounded like the amps were caked in thick Delta mud.
By their second release, Thickfreakness, they'd move onto Fat Possum Records, home to North Mississippi blues guitarists R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, whom Carney and Auerbach had initially bonded over.
They followed it a year later with the fantastic Rubber Factory. Recorded in an abandoned warehouse in Akron, the spacious, deep-seated groove and downcast tone seemed to echo the downhill trajectory of the one-time rubber capital of the world.
Magic Potion was dismissed by some as more of the same, which hardly seems fair given the sinew and bite of their chunky boogie. Whatever the critics thought, producer extraordinaire Brian Burton was impressed. He conceived a project that would feature the Keys backing Ike Turner. They began work on the project, but Turner died before its completion. That's when the Keys started thinking about their own album, and Burton offered his services. It seemed like a perfect match.
"Our main concern working with producers was them wanting to force an overall sonic aesthetic on us, and Brian had no interest in that at all. He told us numerous times, he didn't really care what things sounded like; he cared more about the arrangements," Carney says. "So it was kind of like the best of both worlds. Dan and I were able to have the engineer Paul get the sound exactly how we wanted it, and then Brian was ... more about ideas."
On "I Got Mine," the album's second track and the first one they worked on, Burton steps out during the break, lifting it into the stratosphere with looping noises like sirens on narcotics, spiraling upward in softly billowing psychedelic plumage, before plunging back into the rumbling blues workout.
"That's what he does," Carney says. "He's good at turning parts around and filling voids."
Burton utilized his gift for working around the edges while allowing the Black Keys to take center stage. The Keys still pump blood like motor oil in a heart sludgy with ache; Burton just expands the canvas. He enriches their primal, propulsive groove with atmosphere and texture.
But the duo intends to return to a grittier, rougher sound on the next album, Carney says.
"Dan and I, we definitely cross paths for a majority of our tastes and then the other part of it we are both constantly trying to pull in a different direction, opposite directions almost," he says. "It keeps us moving so it doesn't stay too stagnant. We both want to try to incorporate different stuff into this."
While they share similar musical tastes, they also tend to tussle like brothers.
It's easy to imagine as Carney confides that their latest bus-born activity is a combination of wrestling and food-fighting that began as a result of the two swatting food out of each other's hands. Carney describes it as "'The Babysitter's Club,' but instead of pillow fights it's salami sandwich fights," he says, acknowledging it might have gotten a bit out of hand.
"We played in San Francisco and our tour manager Jamie drove for like an hour because him and Dan really wanted an In-N-Out burger," he explains.
"[Jamie's] holding it, and I can see his mouth watering. I just want to touch it, to let him know that if I wanted to I could've swatted it. But he's holding it so daintily that it falls out of his hand, when I just tap it, and onto this dirty-ass carpet on the stage. Payback will be a bitch."
After you've paid the dues and the rent, it's time to pay for your tour manager's burger.
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
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