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The Black Keys: Chart-Topping Blues

by Jaan Uhelszki on September 23, 2014

Photo: John Patrick Gatta

It's 11 A.M. on this dreary day and Carney is just waking up. He’s on his second cup of espresso made in a state-of-the-art Nespresso machine, and he’s still a little pre-verbal. And grouchy. He’s been up until the wee hours, not celebrating as you might expect—just three days before, The Black Keys’ eighth album, Turn Blue, debuted at No. 1—but being vexed.

“I’ve been in a kind of grumpy mood today. I’m not really sure why,” he trails off. “No, I know why.” he says, pausing to light one of many Camel Lights.

Is having a No. 1 record a bad thing?

“No, that’s not it.”

I ask him for a confirmation that they have legitimately made it.

This is a band, after all, that even after winning three awards earlier in the night felt out of place at a glitzy Grammy party. Do they feel like they belong there now?

“No. Not really,” replies Carney, quickly snapping his mouth shut as if to stop himself from saying more.

“I wouldn’t want to go to those parties anyway,” he huffs. “But that’s where my head’s been this whole time.”

A lifelong rock fan, Carney will proudly recount, after a couple of drinks, how he stalked Mark Mothersbaugh back in 1996, when the infamous Devo co-founder came home to Akron to visit his mother after a Cleveland Lollapalooza date. He’s more eager to hear stories of rock’s dark infamy than to tell his own.

“So, what were the most drugs you’ve ever seen anyone take while you were on a rock tour?” he asks me with a feverish glint behind his oversized glasses—he tells me he will never get contact lenses—as he leads me out of the main house, across a small parking lot, where a 1960s hunter-green Mustang once owned by Tanya Tucker is parked next to a small building that resembles a turret out of an Edwardian costume drama.

Part home studio, part Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and paneled in dark wood, this setting seems far more comfortable for Carney, with his two unruly dogs head-butting his legs. He settles into a decidedly unfashionable easy chair, folding his 6-foot-3-inch body to fit its contours. While almost as tall as the late Joey Ramone, Carney wills himself to look smaller, so as not to take up too much space. An unlikely rock star, and better-looking than you’d suspect from photos, he has the gift of making everyone else seem more important than he is, and he’s more endearing because of it.

Two weeks ago in a Reddit interview, a fan asked him: “What [do] you miss the most from your non-celebrity days?”

“I don’t consider myself a celebrity,” the drummer replied. “But I miss being able to express my thoughts and not have hundreds and thousands of teenagers attack me.”

And he means it—no doubt about the millions of Justin Bieber fans who came after he mentioned their callow leader to TMZ in 2013 (“Grammys are for music, not for the money, and he’s making a lot of money. He should be happy.”) The pop tart took it as an insult, and tweeted that Carney needed to be “slapped around.”

Auerbach, for his part, certainly believes that Carney’s directness is refreshing. “We’re artists, and we love music, and we do whatever the hell we want. I don’t answer to anyone, ever,” he says, his blue-gray eyes flashing. “And Nonesuch is a record label that caters to free-thinkers. There’s no pressure to have a No. 1 record, so it’s the perfect environment for a band like us. They’ve been in business for 50 years, and this is the first No. 1 record they’ve ever had. No one expected us to have a No. 1 record.”

"So how do I feel about being No. 1? I'm a bitch," Carney says, without irony or humor. “I totally get that it was a fight to get this. And if Michael Jackson [whose Xscape finished at No. 2] had still been alive, it wouldn’t even be a contest. We wanted to get No. 1 because we deserved it.”

But there are other things on his mind, too: the inevitable backlash from The Black Keys’ success.

It was something they anticipated. Carney had been predicting it for two years, which might have everything to do with naming the new album Turn Blue—an epithet regularly hurled by local DJ and movie host Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi (and father of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson), during his three-year run as the host of late-night Shock Theater at WJW-TV in Cleveland.

So, who were you directing the message at? Is it code?

“Yeah, it’s like, go off and die. Obviously, when we’re making the record, we’re trying to avoid thinking about what anyone was going to think about it,” says Carney. “But even before we recorded one note of this record, I knew Pitchfork was gonna fucking shit on it. And there was gonna be dissenters from the same blogs that, 10 years ago, were into us.

“I knew all this was coming, but knowing it doesn’t make it OK. When something is small, it can be adorable. But when a band starts getting bigger, everybody wants to jump on them. We started from an honest place, and I think we’re still a super honest band, [but] when you add the commercial success into it, people are looking for these ulterior motives behind everything. They think the Black Hand is moving the band forward or something.”

They’re arguably the biggest band in the U.S. right now, if not in the entire world. It’s been a steady climb, with each of their albums surpassing the next: 2010’s Brothers debuted at No. 3, then 2011’s El Camino went straight to No. 2. But, to Carney, it doesn’t seem so long since March 20, 2002, when the duo played their first gig at the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern in Cleveland in front of eight people.

“Yeah, and half of those people were our friends,” Carney says as he expels smoke and a sound that’s caught somewhere between a laugh and a cough.

But those times are over. These days, their audiences have swelled to more than 100,000, with headlining gigs at Bonnaroo and Coachella. On their El Camino tour, a Madison Square Garden date sold out in minutes, and a second day was added to accommodate the demand. They’re just about to embark on their second headlining arena tour and plan to head to Europe next year. They’re a long way from their first record deal with tiny Los Angeles indie Alive, which at the time was putting out records by the MC5, The Runaways, the Germs and GG Allin.

Run by the late rock critic Greg Shaw, the label signed The Black Keys in 2002 without ever seeing them perform live, and three months later, they unleashed The Big Come Up, starting the group on its bumpy road to world domination.

But world domination isn’t even in The Black Keys’ vocabulary, though they have three multi-platinum records and have attracted fans as disparate as Jennifer Lawrence, Robert Plant, Hilary Duff, Thom Yorke and Billy Gibbons. Rod Stewart said he wanted to work with them, and both Raekwon, RZA and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan actually did, too. None of that seems to matter to the two of them.

“Even if I hadn’t made it in the music business, I’d still be playing music,” Auerbach tells me quietly.

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