The Black Keys on “Dropout Boogie” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, November 29th, 2023  

The Black Keys on “Dropout Boogie”

Off the Cuff

Jun 02, 2022 Photography by Jim Herrington Web Exclusive
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The Black Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney) are a band that, despite their size and their accolades and their popularity, have maintained a simple, well-worn style as much rooted in the past as it is acquiescent to the present strictures of what constitutes popular music. This has been a source of either critical consternation or admiring approval, depending on the vantage point, a pair of energetic, historically-minded musicians or two white dudes from Ohio who once had promise and are now just trying to cash in. Of course, what gets omitted equally from those dichotomies is the seriousness and simultaneous lack of preciousness that goes into making their music. Ever since 2002’s The Big Come Up, The Black Keys have opted for the rough, inspired, and intuitive. This led to the increasing scope of their records, from the roiling, stomping confidence of 2004’s Rubber Factory to the stadium-ringing grandeur of 2011’s El Camino.

In some ways, this makes their continued success all the more baffling. They’ve reached the tallest peaks both critically and commercially, hitting those marks more as badges of achievement, personal evidence to the very fact of being able to do it, than label-mandated style shifts. Where do you go after you’ve conquered and irrevocably altered the territory around you? Even this narrative misses something though because The Black Keys are also a band that thrives on more than just having something to prove or say. There is the urgency of the muse, sure, but also the rare loyalty of friendship, a partnership derived from trying shit out, a collaboration built on communication through history.

As such, The Black Keys have never been concerned with what their music means to an uninterested and perhaps disingenuously critical crowd. They follow their nose and shift gears when the feeling strikes. 2019’s ‘Let’s Rock’ marked such a shift, seemingly a return to basics after 2014’s wondrously psychedelic, Danger Mouse-produced Turn Blue, but really an indication as to where in time and place they were likely to explore. 2021’s Delta Kream, a cover album composed of country blues songs recorded over two afternoons, solidified that direction, not so much reorienting the band as underlining the influences that have been there from the start. This year’s Dropout Boogie synthesizes the previous two albums, combining the reverence and looseness found on Delta Kream with the crunchy, earwormy craft honed on Brothers and El Camino. And they’re hard at work on the next one.

Drummer spoke to Under The Radar just after the 20th anniversary of The Black Keys’ debut album The Big Come Up about continuing to find a sense of purpose and joy in the process of creation, what the musical landscape looks like nowadays, what that means for new artists, and what it takes to keep going after exhaustion and pressure break you down.

Nicholas Russell (Under The Radar): Hey Pat, how are you? Congrats on the new album and the 20th anniversary of The Big Come Up.

Patrick Carney (The Black Keys): Thanks, man. I’m doing good. I’m on vacation right now.

Good. Well, I need to start with a confrontation. You talked to Zane Lowe recently about how no one lives in or buys records here in Vegas. But you’re starting your tour here! What gives?

[Laughs] You know, no one wants to use that arena in July.

That’s fair.

I do like Las Vegas. The first time we ever played, we were supposed to do this garage rock festival in the summer of 2002 and it all fell apart while we were on tour. So we ended up going to play Vegas on the outskirts in some strip mall. We showed up at like 11 in the morning with no money and nowhere to hang out. We hung out at this really insane dive bar until we played at one in the morning. It was our first experience of being on tour and feeling that the worst part is waiting and waiting and waiting. At least it was entertaining because there were really serious drunks asleep at the bar all day.

It’s interesting because Vegas is my hometown and I’m always interested in bands who have a relationship with their hometown after they leave it. Recently, you talked to my friend Matt Mitchell about The Big Come Up and Ohio, where he’s from and still lives. It made me interested in what Ohio means to you these days and to your music, if anything.

It’s a good question. I’ve lived in Nashville now for the last 12 years and I have some really good friends there, but I don’t really, in any way, identify it as my home. I don’t feel that kind of connection. Ohio is somewhere—you know, I don’t get there as often as I should. I have a kid who’s going to turn four and it’s getting a lot easier to travel with him and I imagine I’ll take him back there a lot moving forward. I love Ohio. I lived there for almost 30 years and it definitely informs every single bit of my personality.

But, could I live there again? I could live there in the summers again, but I really couldn’t deal with the winters. That’s essentially why I moved to New York. I left Akron for New York City and I lived there for one year, one of the most fun years of my life. But, once again, I’ve reached my lifetime fulfillment of brutal weather. It’s not the Novembers or the Decembers or the Januarys, it’s the freezing cold March and April that fucking annihilates your soul. I fantasize about buying a house there though. There’s always these relatively cheap, huge houses for sale in rural Ohio that I always fantasize about buying. But it’s weird, you know, I follow one of those old house Instagram accounts and it seems like every other day, there’s a house in Akron for a ridiculously low amount of money. My first house was $100,000, so I could be in a band making a couple hundred dollars a week and I could afford a house.

I highly recommend, if you want to start a band, to move to a place like Ohio, to Akron because there’s so many cool people there and it’s affordable, you know. That’s why I stayed there for so long. And that’s why I left New York, because I ended up in this apartment and it was like $5000 a month. I was living below Ryan Gosling for like three months and I was like “You know, I feel like I’m burning money” and I moved to Nashville.

It’s interesting, listening to Dropout Boogie, The Black Keys’ journey seems to have never drifted too far away from urgency. That’s my read on it anyway. Starting from very low-budget means to incorporating larger sounds to winning Grammys and selling out arenas. I wonder if any of the more unwieldy aspects of success affect what happens in the studio for you guys these days.

We’ve always been aware that we sound the best when we’re playing off the cuff and it’s not something we’ve been drilling over and over again. In fact, we’ve never really done that. But when we have really gone for a take in the studio, we’re searching for, maybe not perfection, but we’re searching for a performance and instantly, there are these parameters in your head for what a good performance is. When it’s just Dan and I, even when we go down that road, it can be fine because we both appreciate really rough music. But if there’s a third person or you invite someone else in, you can really wear out the energy of a song. That’s why most of our music is literally first, second, or third takes. Essentially, our demos are our record. There’s no demoing.

I think this record is especially representative of all things Black Keys and I think that is because we’ve been getting along so well. When we made ‘Let’s Rock’, we hadn’t worked together in two years. We hadn’t even hung out, we’d gotten so fried. So it was us not only making a record for the first time in five years, it was us spending time together for the first time in two years because we took a massive break. Which, for us, seemed a bit dramatic, but I guess it’s something that most bands do quite often. So when we made ‘Let’s Rock’, it didn’t feel as relaxed as when we made Dropout Boogie. We were both really encouraging each other to try ideas. Working with Danger Mouse, one of the many things we learned was seeing someone else’s idea through, even if you’re not fully confident in it. At least let it happen all the way so you can make a judgment on whether it sucks or not. We’ve gotten that with each other.

In fact, we’ve been continuing to work since we finished this record and I think we’re doing some of our best work ever working on this new one. It’s weird because it feels a lot like when we put out our first record, in a certain way. When we put out The Big Come Up, a record sale didn’t really mean anything. That record took maybe a year to sell a thousand copies or something like that. When we got to the point of Turn Blue or El Camino or even Brothers, it was important for us to sell records. It meant something to the label to show that we could sell records, it definitely was the way the label could tell they should keep putting our stuff out. But now, the parameters are changing.

I wanted to ask about that, about streaming, about these newer, ephemeral incentives and ways of engaging. Not to sound high-brow or overly deferential to the pre-digital age. But it seems like the humble beginnings for smaller bands are, in some ways, much more difficult now than when you guys were starting. There’s less money, for one thing.

Oh, it’s insane. This is why streaming isn’t fair. If you look at someone like Kendrick Lamar, he’s arguably the most popular musician in the United States, currently. His streaming numbers, of course, are going to be huge. But they’re huge on a level that’s unfathomable. Like, if you go to the 30th most-streamed artist, his numbers are like 25 times higher than that. A lot of it is the algorithm and stuff, but the problem is you have an artist, like most of the shit I listen to or artists who dabble in all kinds of genres, you’re not going to sit around and listen to the same album more than one or two times in a six month period of time.

I do a lot of streaming, it’s mostly what I listen to because I do a lot of traveling. If I think about a favorite album, like Marquee Moon by Television, I listen to it once a year. Maybe twice. I listen to so many different records, there’s no way I could sit there and keep hitting the same button. And I think that’s kind of the problem. The type of listener that really buys records, they’re listening to a much more diverse amount of music, there’s less repetition, and the payment isn’t reflected that way. It’s almost like the algorithm needs to determine what type of listener you are, then it needs to take the money you’re paying and redistribute that to the type of artist you listen to. But you know, it isn’t fair and it is also, by far, the most convenient way. The fact that there’s freemium allowed just blows my fucking mind.

Do you guys feel like you’re free from those concerns at this point in your career?

I’m not because I do think it’s important for us to advocate for music. It would be disingenuous if I said that it doesn’t worry the shit out of me what’s going to happen to lots of younger bands. It’s possible to have some sort of viral hit and maybe make money quicker, but the upside is not quite the same as when we were coming up.

That kind of attention can be so fleeting.

Yeah. And the algorithm is god. It can take something that shouldn’t even be that popular and make it stream a lot.

I was thinking about that in the context of The Black Keys’ discography. There’s a wealth of musical influence and history there that would get lost if someone was just being fed music that simply sounds similar to you. Jeremy D. Larson wrote about this recently, the way streaming can strip context from music.

It can be. I’m so used to our music being summarized and thrown to the side by motherfuckers at Pitchfork without hearing any of the nuance of what’s going on in the music and chalking it up to something as something that’s a blues hammer white boy whatever. That’s the same with movies or anything for casual listeners or viewers, just scratching the surface of what’s there. That’s just the world we live in unfortunately. But, if you want to go deep with a band, it used to be really hard to do it and now you can.

When I was 17 or 18, I got into Belle and Sebastian and at the time their first record, Tigermilk, was impossible to find. You’d have to find a dubbed copy of it. Eventually it was reissued by Matador, but that’s just one example of how hard it was to find records back when I was first getting into music. The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms was impossible to find in Akron, Ohio. It was totally out of print, a mythical record and you’d have to hunt for these things and now it’s just right there. For me, that almost outweighs everything when it comes to streaming. The way I used to hear a lot of music was I’d go to the library and check a record out. That was the only way I could listen to most of the music that was out there. I went to the record store so many times and bought records that were just complete shit. I was making $5 an hour and a record was like $13 so it took, essentially, three hours of work to buy one record. To get that and put it in and be like “Oh my god, this is fucking dogshit,” it happened all the time.

This new album, Delta Kream, and ‘Let’s Rock’ seem to really tie together your more referential musical priorities as of late, which isn’t a value judgment, but there’s a real synthesis across those last three records that seems to point towards a consistency in sound and an interest in perhaps a more blues-y direction. I wonder if that affects your setlists when touring. Weighing your interests now versus the big hits people expect you to play.

Our setlist is basically informed by what we think is going to be fun to play. Our catalog, I think we have somewhere around 150 songs. There’s probably at least 50 of those songs we’ve never played live and probably never will. And we’re fully aware, you make a record like Dropout Boogie, it’s our 11th studio record, yeah, we’re gonna play two or three songs off of it. That’s it though. That’s actually one of the coolest things about being in a band for this long. You realize you’re just trying to swap out a song or two from the setlist. You don’t need to make a whole set and also no one wants to hear that shit.

The Delta Kream record is a little bit different, you know, it’s us paying respects to the music we first bonded over. Only the deepest Black Keys fan will really know that. That said, we are taking [blues slide guitarist] Kenny Brown and [blues bassist] Eric Deaton out on this tour and we’re gonna do a 25-minute Delta Kream set. My idea is that we incorporate a couple songs from The Big Come Up in that set. But we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think it would go over. Part of the deal with that type of music is you couldn’t just do a song or two, it has to be a 30-minute block. You have to let it get to its heart. I think just watching Kenny play guitar is interesting enough. At the same time, we’re completely aware that, if the crowd’s getting antsy, we’ll know to maybe play “Lonely Boy” right after it.

I know you guys got burned out several years ago and I’m curious where you’re at these days. Does touring feel daunting and the studio more approachable or vice versa? I can imagine after so many records, including the side projects and solo albums, feeling the wear.

I think that’s why we started making another record so quickly off the heels of Dropout Boogie. Things were going so well that we wanted to keep it rolling. When you go into the studio with no ideas sketched out, you’re rolling the dice and we always do it that way. But it can also be like “Well, what if we don’t think of anything?” So there’s a little bit of worry there.

The burnout thing, in 2016, when we stopped touring for that year and the following too. We made a record in 2018, so it was like we took two years off. I could chalk that up to a few things. One was that the grass is always greener. At that point, Dan and I had been working together for a long time and he wanted to do some things outside the band and I think those experiences were really good for him. With touring…I just watched a little documentary about Supertramp, a band I don’t really know that much about. But there’s an interview with the singer talking about 1979 and how their record Breakfast In America had come out and they were saying in nine months, they did 120 shows and they basically broke up after that. That’s what I’ve seen happen a lot. I’ve talked to other bands that have toured on hot records who feel like they really have to get around and take advantage of it. I talked to Chris Thompson, the drummer for Vampire Weekend, once. How many dates they’ve done in the past, all that, and it really will fuck your head up.

It’s not just traveling around for 120 days, it’s 120 times of getting up on stage and feeling all the pressure and then all the excitement and then coming down. One time is a lot, but doing it hundreds of times is fucking intense. So I’m not dreading the touring because, for me at least, we’ve gotten to a place that’s palatable. Doing 40 shows a year or something like that is fine. The hardest part about that now is the idea of being away from my kid. But we’ve broken it up into different chunks so I think it’s manageable. It’s also probably good for my kid too. I spend a lot of time with my son, to the point where it’s probably unhealthy for both of us.

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