A few weeks ago, Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys and budding golf enthusiast, hit the links with Alice Cooper, the American godfather of shock rock. “He’s a great golfer,” Carney says. The 73-year-old told him that last summer was the first summer he’d been home since the mid-60s. He was loving it. “I like to think about silver linings,” says Carney, 41, broaching the topic of an industry ground to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Being a musician is a hard thing and not being able to tour, there’s probably a lot of people [in this industry] who have made some big life changes that might be really good.”
For he and his bandmate, frontman and guitarist Dan Auerbach, it meant getting back in the studio, on a whim and just for fun, for the first time in a very long time. They tinkered with old Mississippi blues covers, playing with a few legends from the genre, and had the good sense to hit record while they did. Last Friday, that magic released in the form of their 10th studio LP, Delta Kream, a raw collection of muddy blues covers from artists like Junior Kimbrough—an artist they’ve covered frequently during their tenure—and R.L. Burnside.
“I think this may be our best record,” remarks Carney.
The Black Keys origin story is well-known territory by now. Two musically obsessed teens growing up in Akron, Ohio get together to figure out how make some noise and, 10 years after banging it out in clubs across the country they manage to break big. Very big. Their own dizzying combination of blues-rock, stomp rock, and Southern soul suddenly felt inevitable. Inescapable. So to make an album, twenty years into their tenure of their oldest, perhaps purest shared influence is both an evolution and a welcome look back for the duo. And it comes at a moment when both men are reflective on the moments that made, and nearly destroyed, the band.
Morning persons are rare in rock and roll, but Auerbach is one of them. Up around five each day, the 42-year-old heads to his Nashville studio where he works on any number of projects for himself or his Easy Eye Sound roster. (Auerbach founded his independent label in 2017.) It became even more of a refuge over the last 15 months as touring schedules cleared, indefinitely. “I haven’t stopped working a single day,” he admits. “It’s a blessing. I get to fulfil that need to make stuff from scratch.”
The nexus for Kream began in one such session. Auerbach was in the booth working with Robert Finley, a veteran bluesman signed to his label, and had invited up some musicians from the Delta region to play. Kenny Brown played alongside Burnside for more than three decades and Eric Deaton has, for those who are the familiar with the genre will already know, sat in with damn near everyone who makes this kind of music. “He’s an encyclopedia of hill country blues,” says Auerbach of the bassist.
With a little extra studio time left while the men were still in town, Auerbach called Carney and asked him to come in, tomorrow. And for the Keys, who’d just come off a stretch of arena dates in support of Let’s Rock, their 2019 album, playing Kimbrough cuts with a few blues legends felt like fresh air. “We weren’t really making a record,” admits Auerbach. “We were just having fun.” They tracked nine songs the first day.
The process felt familiar to Auerbach. “I grew up in a house where my uncles and my aunt would all play bluegrass music,” he says. “They would play old songs, traditional songs, family brother songs, Jimmy Martin songs, and even older songs, blues songs. So just playing songs, it just been a part of my life since I was a kid.”
That didn’t stop him, however, from feeling star struck, when Brown started noodling. “I hadn't felt like that in a long time,” Auerbach admits. “And he's also sitting there playing the same Silvertone guitar that I saw him and R. L. Burnside play, the first time I saw those guys when I was 18.”
He continues: “Some of my strongest memories are those nights in those sweaty clubs watching this music. People are like, ‘Isn't it weird to be young and white and play blues?’ I think it's weird to play post-punk. That should've been dead a long time ago. What the fuck is your connection to that? I was going to see these musicians in person.”
As Carney says, the experience is really a representation and reminder of who he and Auerbach are as a band: “[We’re] built around recording. We started the band recording on a four track, and having fun learning how to do that. The excitement wasn’t initially about playing a big show—or playing a show in general. It was about listening back to the recording we have made.”
The duo didn’t write any songs for this album, but they did breathe an amazing amount of new life into these cuts. The arrangements are spacious, unhurried—imperfect. Or, as Auerbach says, referencing where he and Carney grew up, “There’s plenty of Northeastern Ohio basement on the record.” Months later, when they decided to actually release it, Auerbach says resisting the temptation to smooth out anything in post-production was important. “It’s a document of those few hours,” he says. “We didn’t change anything, for better or worse.”
To explore, and riff, is to honour the genre, he says: “That's American music. It gets passed down and passed down, and everyone who comes in contact puts their own stamp on it. And that is the beauty. It's the melting pot.”
The Black Keys do plan to return to the road, though when and how much hangs in the balance. They’re currently slated to headline Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in their adopted home state of Tennessee come September. But after a year in which many musicians have barely scraped by, Carney admits to having mixed feelings about when they should attempt a full tour launch. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in America, they cancelled their summer arena tour in support of Let’s Rock. “I had the foresight to say ‘Don’t even book anything for 2021,’” Carney recalls. Looking forward, he adds, “It’s going to be a cluster fuck. There are so many musicians that need to tour, let’s not muddle it up.”
All of the salaried, full-time employees of the band kept their jobs last year, and Carney says they were able to get PPE money to distribute to their road crew. After initially feeling guilty about applying for the loan, Carney says, “Finally, I was like, wait a second, we pay our fucking taxes. We’ve paid so much in taxes! What about Amazon? Amazon doesn’t even pay corporate taxes. Fucking hook it up.” Everyone collected a paycheck for the duration of the intended tour dates.
But it’s also the last 20 years—a handful in particular—on the road that also makes them cautious about future commitments. Plenty of typeface has been devoted to the mania of road life that consumed, and eventually burned out, the Black Keys by the mid-2010s. The back-to-back releases of Brothers (2010) and El Camino (2011)—two blistering, blues rock collections that testify to everything the men do well in music—made them the biggest band in the world. Super sheeny pop and the boom thwack of hip-hop were the dominant mainstream sounds but Carney and Auerbach broke through. Each set cracked the Top 5 on the all genre Billboard 200 albums chart; both earned 2x platinum certification.
“It almost broke our band up,” Carney admits. Thinking back on that time, he adds, “That fucked our brains up. But we had been working for so long that every opportunity that we never got in the previous decade, when they [finally] came to us, we couldn't say no. We said yes to everything.” They logged more than 220 nights on the road in the year following the release of El Camino, something he’s certain they’ll never do again.
Carney adds that now that he’s a father—he and his wife, singer Michelle Branch, welcomed a son in 2018—has an entirely new awareness of what Auerbach went through, already a dad at the peak of their fame and travel. “Now I think, just whoa,” he says.
“Life on the road sucks,” says Auerbach. “It’s really easy to get trapped out there, in your mind, if you’re not careful.”
For Carney, the structures in place in the music industry that require an artist to tour that hard are problematic. He has made no secret of his views of the unfair streaming percentage payouts to artists over the years. “It isn’t healthy to think when you put a record out, in order to take care of your family, you need to go play 75 shows. But the truth is, even for a band like us that has good streaming numbers, nothing can compare to the live show, as far as the monetary reward. So touring is the crux of a musician’s life, and it’s the part of a musician’s life that usually makes their life much shorter and much more fucked up.”
He doesn’t anticipate immediate change on that front, but he does hope the pandemic had some bettering effect for the business. “One thing I do think is cool that's changed,” he says, “is that the bands that have done the traditional huge roll-outs of their records during the pandemic just kind of look super goofy. Like, who doesn’t like the Foo Fighters? But the promo of their records, it’s exhausting.”
Auerbach is less of a revolutionary. “That kind of hyper-focus and dedication is what it takes to be good at anything,” he explains. To be the band—that band—the one everyone’s talking about, the mania is a foregone conclusion: “You have to be kind of insane for a while.”
Time has tempered their view of that era. “I only see the peak now,” Carney says. “It was exciting. But unsustainable. [We] couldn’t do it again.” Auerbach agrees. “I wouldn’t be who I am without having gone through all of that,” he says. “It’s some of the best memories I have.”
Very few bands make it to 20-plus years and 10 albums together. But for Auerbach, looking and listening back really only happens when it’s time to rehearse for a tour. It’s not so much uncomfortable to hear himself, as it is uninteresting. “I already know me,” he says, explaining the lack of draw.
Carney is different. “I’m more of a sentimental guy,” he says. “Occasionally, I’ll go down memory lane and pull out one of the records and listen to it. And when we put out a new record sometimes I’ll go and be like, how does this stack up?”
Auerbach especially, but Carney as well, have logged plenty of producer credits in the last decade. The frontman has worked with the likes of Dr. John, Cage the Elephant, and Lana Del Rey, while Carney with Branch and Tennis. It’s meant that, at least Carney, has enjoyed himself over the years tinkering with some of their past work. Their third album, Rubber Factory, has been completely remixed, though he teases, "not like a dance remix."
But it has also, perhaps counterintuitively, made them realise their first two LPs—2002’s The Big Come Up and 2003’s Thickfreakness, which they made on their own in Ohio—should be preserved, as is, forever. “I destroyed those masters,” Carney admits. “They don’t exist. I did it intentionally, so they just weren’t there. They were made in a basement; they were made on jinky equipment and they are a really good documentation.”
As the catalog grows, a new pressure forms. “I do take pride [in lasting this long],” says Carney. “But then I also go, well there’s a band like Chicago that’s made 30 albums and I can’t listen to a single one of them … When you start getting into deep catalog, you want to make sure it’s not diminishing returns. I know this record isn’t. It’s taken us 20 years to make a record like this.”
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