Bonnaroo Bound: The Black Keys
Here in Carney’s neighborhood, where blades of grass spring up between the bricks blanketing the street, where red, white and blue tapestries garnish grand porch railings, and where the occasional passing car and the rise-and-fall chorus of locust-like cicadas are the only things interrupting the suburban solitude, it’s easy to see how Auerbach could wind up on that journey.
In a place where the distractions can be few, where, if you let it, boredom can squat like a 5,000-pound gorilla on your back, those records offered the young guitar player a place to get lost. Simple, full of open tunings and chocked full of groove, they beckon the teenage guitarist who still can’t quite hold his own. In fact, the very first thing Auerbach and Carney jammed on as teenagers was a T-Model Ford song.“That’s all I knew how to do,” says the former.“That’s all I listened to at the time, when I was learning how to play the electric guitar.That’s it. I was playing with a slide and without a pick. If you’d asked me to do something else, I wouldn’t have been able to.” Though they started playing with a neighborhood friend, who played harmonica, he soon faded out of the picture.“I think just playing with a drummer made it easier for me because I probably wouldn’t have known how to interact with any other instrumentation at the time,” Auerbach laughs.
“I thought it was weird,” Carney says of Auerbach’s early, Hill Country sound. “But I thought it was really good— unusual, because all of my other friends were either into, like, fake Sonic Youth or they liked to shred, which I always hated. I liked the simple, repetitive stuff, the stuff that was more fun to play.”
“Yeah, I never had any connection with that shit,” says Auerbach, leaning back on an ancient former kitchen chair. “Like the theme from Super Mario Brothers 2: That’s a guitar. There’s a guy with a guitar that’s making all those fuckin’ sounds!” Since the release of their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up (on the teeny Alive Records label), on through their brief tenure on Fat Possum—the Hill Country kingpin without whom The Black Keys would probably not exist, at least as we know them—groove has been the centerpiece of their music.
And since moving on to the Warner-affiliated Nonesuch label for the release of the squonking, squealing Magic Potion, nothing has really been lost in the transition—the band made sure of it. Like each of the Keys’ previous records, Magic Potion was cut in Carney’s basement— “Thirty floors underground, in the catacombs,” he says—and one mic was used to capture both the guitar amp and the drums, while overdubs were minimal. If in songs like the brilliant ballad “You’re the One,” they take a breather, on stomping barnstormers like “Your Touch,” their groove has grown tighter.
“We’ve both gotten deeper as musicians,” says Auerbach, “but every time we go to make a record,we simplify things again.We like to keep it that way, because everything seems to be better that way.” Here in Akron, Auerbach and Carney have come a long way since the days when they fended off shredding and shredders. In and around the University of Akron, the school they attended for a heartbeat, they are minor celebs.At a neighborhood coffee shop earlier, a cherub-faced woman sitting nearby feigned ignorance as to who was sitting at the next table, until the Keys got up to leave. “I know you’re a guitar player,” she said to Auerbach, the first to pass, before holding up a clumpy brown strip of macramé, which she explained was in fact a guitar strap she had sown from hemp.“I wanted to see what you thought. Is it long enough?”
“It’s too long for me,” said Auerbach.
“What about you?” she said, looking at Carney.
“I’m not a guitar player, but maybe Lebron could wear it,” he quipped, referring to the only other unmentioned Akron-born star: six-foot, eightinch NBA standout Lebron James.“No? Well,maybe you could smoke it.”
If anything has proven as consistent as the Keys’ themselves, it’s Carney’s deadpan humor: During our chat, the lanky drummer doubles over Auerbach repeatedly, proudly working even himself into a chuckle or two with self-deprecating stories of his pathetic attempts at higher education, adolescent mishaps or torturing Auerbach and the Keys crew with tracks from Korn bassist Fieldy’s side project, Fieldy’s Dreams.
Before he was a Black Key, that constant joking delivered the oncenerdy teenager a good number of beatdowns: “I got beat up by the same kid two days in a row—punched up in the same eye,”he says, still in disbelief. WWhile fellow Firestone High Falcons,Auerbach and Carney didn’t really mingle as adolescents. They played in the same little league as kids, and they certainly knew each other, but the guitarist hung with the cool kids and played sports, and the thin, tall Carney played instigator to the cool kids, got high and didn’t bother attending tryouts when he was sure he wouldn’t make the team. Today, he cuts an almost intimidating figure—especially as a bashy, sweaty performer.“The beer’s filled me out,”he cracks.
Despite it being the setting for Carney’s most embarrassing memories, he and Auerbach have no plans to leave. By remaining here in Akron, they not only stay close to family and friends, but they’re also able to keep both housing and studio costs low. Each has his own studio. Downstairs here at Carney’s house, the band cranked out Magic Potion for free,pocketing their advance, or using portions to purchase recording gear, which they can resell later.
Economics aside, there’s just no real incentive to leave, says Auerbach: “I feel like we’d lose our souls if we moved to New York or L.A. And I don’t feel like I could ever be creative in L.A. or New York,” he says, as Carney plots his next joke. “It’s so competitive there, and I think you could get lost in that competitiveness and forget about what you’re really trying to do.
“We like it here,” continues Auerbach. “It’s kind of laid-back, and comfortable…”
“It’s like Cheers on the city level,” says a grinning Carney.
“So who would you be:Woody or Norm?”Auerbach retorts.
“I would be Woody, Norm and Cliff.”
“Yeah, you probably would be a combination of all three. I would probably be Frasier.”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
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Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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