The Black Keys: Blues Brothers
The Black Keys survived the ultimate rock jinx. Very few rock bands rediscover the chemistry that defined them when members of the group start to make solo albums. But after Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney went off to record with their own groups, they went on to make the best record of their career, Brothers. The album—with its memorable hit single, the Danger Mouse-produced “Tighten Up” —is also their best selling disc to date, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart behind the soundtrack to the hit television show Glee and the reissue of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.
Auerbach doesn’t buy the solo jinx, perhaps in part because he never felt like he really went off on his own. “I know what you’re talking about, but we’re not like that,” he says as the band prepares for a five-month tour of the United States and Europe. “We had a big chunk of time off, so I just decided to do something with it. I’m always writing or recording something. [My solo record] Keep It Hid was fun because I was making it in my home studio. My studio was new, so there was a great feeling of being at home while I was making it. There’s no difference between writing songs for The Black Keys or a solo record—it can be either. A lot of songs on both records were written around the same time.”
Keep It Hid was released in February 2009 with Auerbach playing a tour in support of it with his own band. Carney formed his own group, Drummer, which put out its album, Feel Good Together, in September. If the side projects did not push the group apart, then they represented a turning point for The Black Keys. The group that had never left its Ohio base to make a record took on two extremely demanding projects in unfamiliar territory: during a whirlwind stretch over the summer, the duo went to Brooklyn to collaborate on a record with hip-hop MCs, called BlakRoc, then traveled to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to cut most of the tracks for Brothers.
“It was a heavy point,” says Carney. “[Dan and I] had been apart. We did a couple of shows last year but we really didn’t see each other much until we started working on the BlakRoc record.” The project came at a time when Carney was in the midst of an emotional divorce and planning his move from his hometown of Akron, Ohio to New York.
“I probably should have been more cautious with my friends [in Drummer],” says Carney. “They knew going into it that I was in a band already and The Black Keys would obviously be a priority. We were supposed to do a West Coast tour and I had to put that on hold because the BlakRoc record happened. I had a kind of falling out with the lead singer and the band basically just broke up. We’re all on pretty good terms now, though.”
BlakRoc appeared to be a dramatically different direction for The Black Keys, but it was a record the duo had been preparing to make since they were teenagers. Auerbach has been listening to hip-hop since he was a kid, even though he played blues guitar with a slide. His first music purchase was a cassette single of The Geto Boys “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Carney’s first buy, he ruefully admits, was Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.”
Truth to be told, the song offers a keen insight into The Black Keys approach to music making. It is less about Vanilla Ice than it is about the way a riff from the David Bowie/Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” is looped to create the infectious backing rhythm. This approach to using discrete musical ideas as a foundation for new songs is central to the way most hip-hop recordings are created and it’s also a way that The Black Keys create music. Their songs repeatedly remind listeners of a catalog of influences but are so cleverly arranged and embellished with original melodic content that they never sound like covers.
“If there’s any goal, it’s to never sound retro,” says Auerbach. “We appreciate new music. We love the sound of hip-hop records.”
The band got its chance to demonstrate that love when rap impresario Damon Dash invited The Black Keys to record with rapper Jim Jones, an idea that mushroomed into the band making BlakRoc with an all-star cast of rappers including Mos Def, Raekwon, Q-Tip and RZA [Ed note: We did a cover story on the project for our December/January issue. Find it at www.relix.com/blakroc. ]
“I expected it would be somewhat of a challenge,” says Carney, who produced all of the band’s early records. “Going into it, I could see more risks than anything else. The idea of a rock band trying to go in and make a hip-hop record is kind of daunting. But I thought that Dan and I were up to the challenge. It was the first time we’d recorded in two years. We did [ BlakRoc ] right before Brothers and the way we approached it, focusing on bass lines and grooves, not only helped us focus, but [also] working in the studio for 11 days before we made our own record cleared our heads of all preconceived ideas that we had about our next record. It was easier to use ideas off the top of our heads.”
The bass and drum tracks became the lifeline of BlakRoc, with guitar parts mostly augmenting the rhythm or being used as fills.
“We would record the backing tracks in the morning and then in the afternoon, the hip-hop artists would come in and put down lyrics they’d composed right on the spot,” Auerbach marvels. “It was inspiring to witness. It was like no hip-hop record ever made.”
After BlakRoc was completed, the band immediately started work on Brothers.
“We finished BlakRoc August 12, packed up our gear and I drove it all down to Alabama,” says Carney. Auerbach flew down and the two started recording for Brothers August 15.
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