Don't Call the Black Keys 'Garage Blues'
11/24/2004 3:07 PM, AP
Just because The Black Keys wear jeans and T-shirts, just because their production quality possesses that feeling of minimalist organic haze, just because they're a stripped-down, drums-and-guitar duo with a blues face and composite soul that veers everywhere from esoteric punk to the old-time harmonies frontman Dan Auerbach used to sing with his mother as a kid ... that does not make them a garage band.
Garage blues. That's the term you'll see stuck on the Black Keys, which is fine, as far as any of the multitude of limiting modern genre constructions are fine, fine because of the understanding that we need terms like this to connect the good music that's being made now to the good music that was being made then.
It's fine. Just don't use the terminology to their faces.
"Sometimes I feel like music that's called blues nowadays is not relevant to anybody, and it's just background music," Auerbach says carefully, sitting next to drummer Patrick Carney in a hotel cafe a few hours before a show. "And that's why it's hard for us to want to be associated with it, you know? I love blues music, but I'm really picky about what I listen to, you know? So it's weird. A love-hate relationship."
At first glance, or maybe second, the 20-something Akron, Ohio natives form a neat ying/yang symbiosis. Carney, awkward, lanky, and bespectacled, is eccentrically hyper-intelligent and at times hilariously satirical, whose affable geek skepticism melts unexpectedly into the primal rage with which he attacks his drums. Auerbach is the meditatively laid-back guitarist whose farm-kid looks are belied by his almost comically nonsensical, moaning voice and the possessed ferocity of his guitar play.
Like any good "blues" band, there are interesting familial ties. Carney is the nephew of Ralph Carney, a longtime saxophone player with Tom Waits , while Auerbach is the cousin of the late Robert Quine, an immensely influential punk guitarist who left his mark on everything from albums like Richard Hell and The Voidoids "The Blank Generation" and a Velvet Underground Bootleg series to further collaborations with Lou Reed and Brian Eno .
"We've been playing together since we were like 16 or 17. We lived around the corner from each other," Auerbach says. "We knew each other when we were kids, and we had this friend who lived across the street from me that mentioned that we should get together and play sometime. When you've played together for a while, you just learn how to spice things up."
Of course within any drums-and-guitar duo, the threat of homogeneity lurks around every turn, particularly after every successful one. You'd have to think that the band's structure would place real limitations on the continuing expansion of its sound which makes the recently released "Rubber Factory" quite possibly the band's finest accomplishment. And which, given the covert critical praise of its first two albums, is saying something.
After being evicted last year from Carney's basement, where the band self-produced their 2002 debut "The Big Come Up" and 2003's "Thickfreakness," they laid down the tracks for "Rubber Factory," in a vast, abandoned Akron tire plant, using recycled tape from their Fat Possum label's studios in Mississippi.
Not that there haven't been tests along the way. A few years ago, after the homemade success of "The Big Come Up," Auerbach and Carney found themselves in a ritzy California studio looking to lay tracks for what would become "Thickfreakness." They were surrounded by the inevitable peanut gallery of technicians, producers and industry reps with their own ideas about how the album should sound.
So The Black Keys decided to do things their own way, trading in intricate production magic for the hazy, candid electricity reminiscent of The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat."
"There's a kind of do-it-yourself mentality in Akron 'cause there's not really any studios that you would ever want to go to," Auerbach says. And though both Carney and Auerbach seem to understand all too well what they're "missing," neither seems to have any regrets.
"We get tons of airplay in England on major stations," Auerbach says. "And it's cool because the DJs over there don't give a ... and you can tell by what they play. They'll play us and then they'll play a rap song and then they'll play, you know, Beethoven. It's crazy."
"In the end," he says, "you can tell right away whether musicians are making the music to make money or whether they're making music 'cause they love it."
Later that afternoon, Auerbach and Carney head across the street to the World Financial Center to perform a free concert as part of New York's River To River Festival.
"Have they ever had a show here before?" Auerbach had asked back at the hotel. "I mean, will anyone be there?" Carney considered the possibility that they might be relegated to accepting an oversized photo-op check and then being sent on to the next gig. And with the folding chairs behind a makeshift stage filling cautiously with distracted runners and ice cream-toting babysitters, initially Carney doesn't seem that far off.
Making his only appearance at the microphone, Carney quips, "We'd just like to thank Starbucks for having us." A few scattered listeners, presumably those who knew what they were coming for, seem to appreciate the irony.
"Say you need a simple life, you need a simple man," Auerbach moans in the midst of "No Trust." "That don't drink or smoke, play in a rock 'n' roll band." He impressively multitasks on his guitar, layering intricate fingering over growling, thumb-picked bass lines that cover the spectrum of the band's sound, his howls ranging from sweet to deranged on "10 AM Automatic."
Auerbach walks over from center stage and plays facing Carney. Beating his kit maniacally with sticks, tambourines, maracas anything to keep increasing the density and kineticism of the duo's sound Carney drums as if to exorcise some sort of repressed personal vendetta against nothing in particular.
The two face each other down in a gritty, head-weaving orbit. It's the show's most intense exhibition, with Carney rhythmically replicating the thumping heart of Auerbach's overdriven play, of that "Thickfreakness" The Keys are capable of cleaving out of minute musical spaces. By the third song, with most of the growing crowd boogying uncertainly in their seats, Carney assures them it's standard procedure to come dance near the stage which they do.