MINNEAPOLIS — Sometimes the good bands do win. Hard-working, underground rock groups can come up through the grimy ranks of small clubs, put 300,000 miles on a tour van and wind up breaking through to mass audiences.
Case in point: The Black Keys. In two short years, the metallic blues-punk duo from rusty Akron, Ohio, issued two hit albums with broadened song hooks and tightened chug-chug-chugga grooves but also plenty of raw garage-band power. Childhood pals Dan Auerbach (singer/guitarist) and Patrick Carney (drummer) also added more bravado and brawny muscle to the latest record, “El Camino,” as if it were made with arenas in mind.
Auerbach, however, denies that was the case.
“We were just trying to make catchy rock ‘n’ roll songs,” he said, calling from a tour stop in Denver. “We weren’t really thinking about venues while we were recording. We’re not calculating enough to do that.”
Auerbach actually is quite a crafty record-maker these days. He produced the acclaimed new Dr. John album, “Locked Down,” and has many more producer gigs in the works for such lesser-known acts as Hanni El Khatib, Jeff the Brotherhood and Bombino.
But first comes the Keys tour. Here is Auerbach’s report from the road.
Q. How are the Black Keys different playing to 10,000-20,000 people vs. 200?
A. It doesn’t matter, honestly. It all comes down to audience participation. If the audience is into it, whether there’s 150 people or 20,000, it’s going to be great. If the audience is just standing there and not into it, then it’s going to be boring.
But really, we haven’t played 200-capacity venues for a long time. At a certain point, they all feel pretty big. … The only real difference now is we’ve got bigger lights and stuff like that, but what we do as musicians — which is hopefully what’s still most important — hasn’t really changed.
Q. You guys expanded to a four-piece on your last tour but then went back to just the two of you to record “El Camino.” How and when do you decide to work as a duo?
A. It was never a shtick for us, being a two-piece band. Our first record had bass on it, Moog synthesizer and dubbed vocals. It was never strictly guitar/drums. We just couldn’t find any other musicians to play with us. No one we auditioned back then clicked. So we went out as a two-piece. Now, we have the luxury of bringing a couple guys out and recreating the songs how they sound on the records.
It’s more entertaining for me as a musician to be able to come out and play as a four-piece and as a two-piece. It’s a blast to go back and forth. The parts we play as a two-piece feel that much more special, and then when we turn into a four-piece it feels that much bigger. We think it’s a cool thing, and we feel lucky to get to do it.
Q. Why did you move to Nashville and build your studio there before “El Camino”?
A. I wanted to get out of Akron, but I didn’t want to go to New York or L.A. or anywhere that’s cold in winter like Akron. I had been going to Nashville since I was a kid and always liked it. Right after the flood (in Nashville in May 2010), I went there and hung out with my buddy Patrick Keeler of the Greenhornes and Raconteurs. He showed me around, and it felt great. So I gave Nashville a shot, and it’s been nothing but amazing. Then three or four months after I moved there, Pat (Carney) made the jump from New York. He lives right down the street now.
Q. How would you explain the magic that happened when you brought Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) there?
A. Record production is a hard thing to quantify. But I suppose it came down to the right musicians at the right time, and Mac was feeling energized. It got him out of his comfort zone. He was inspired by the new people around him, and I and everyone else was inspired by him.
Everything he does is so unique and just so him. His playing matches his personality so perfectly. He’s so behind-the-beat, so laid-back. It’s like he just leaves this trail of molasses when he walks around, things slow down and thicken.
Q. How and why do you find the time to squeeze in all your other producer gigs?
A. It’s getting harder. But we still get time off, so I cram a lot in then. Every time I work on a new record, I learn something new, and I get to bring that to every project I do.
Q. CBS’ “Sunday Morning” filmed you guys getting into your Akron high school’s hall of fame. How did that feel?
A. It was bizarre. I hadn’t been there since I graduated, and nothing had changed. Everything was the same: the chairs, the desks, the stains on the windows. (The hall of fame) is actually pretty impressive: Chrissie Hynde (of the Pretenders) is in it, the woman astronaut in the space shuttle Challenger explosion (Judith Resnik) and a couple guys from Devo.
Q. CBS asked your dad about encouraging you guys early on. He said, “How can you not support hard work and passion?” How perfect was that?
A. That was good, and true. He supported us from the beginning. I remember Pat’s drum kit exploding at one of our very first gigs, and he gave us money to go buy nice drum hardware. He always believed in us, and he pushed me to play music because he knew I loved it.
And, yeah, it’s always been about that. I don’t do this because I want to be a rock star. I’m a musician, and it’s what I love to do.
// Notes from the Road
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