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Finding “a sense of freedom” with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney

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Finding “a sense of freedom” with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney

It was 2003, and unless you lived under a rock, you heard about the Jack Black comedy School of Rock. The latest by director Richard Linklater featured Black as lovably unlovable musician Dewey Finn, posing as a prep school teacher to recruit kids into his rock band. The movie celebrated rock and roll in all its glory, and featured a pretty kick-ass soundtrack. A whole new generation of kids was opened up to the majesty, the sleaze, and the power of rock music. Millions of bright-eyed youth across North America would form taste based on the well-curated sounds that backed the film. The classics were present: Cream, The Ramones, and Bowie, even Zeppelin approved.

But what about the little guys featured on the soundtrack? The new up-and-comers? What’s become of them? Young Heart Attack didn’t take off. England’s The Darkness ran headfirst into a rehab-breakup. But while Dewey Finn was coercing the straight edge, fun-hating Principle Rosalie Mullins into allowing him to take the kids on a ‘field trip’ to a rock show, something happened. The American public got a taste of what would become one of the biggest rock bands of the next decade, when “Set You Free” by The Black Keys howled through the dingy dive they convened in.

11 years down the road, guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have almost single-handedly revived rock on the charts. The duo’s monumental success, culminating in six Grammy awards over a two-year span, has hurdled ever farther into the American mainstream. Now a household name across the world, Auerbach and Carney dubiously sidestepped the run-away pop-culture train they had fuelled with the radio-rock hit El Camino. With this year’s Turn Blue, the two band mates, along with longtime producer Danger Mouse AKA Brian Burton, floated into relatively new territory; with spacious, atmospheric song structures and thick, oscillating sound floors, Carney, Auerbach and Burton made a record as dense and lush as their previous work was gritty and bare. The devastatingly tall and endearingly friendly drummer unpacked the record a bit.

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“This record was all done digitally,” remarks Carney, perched atop a bar chair at a bare black high table. “It’s such a crazy dynamic range, that when it gets quiet, it almost feels gross. So we were experimenting with noise floors and toneless, almost, sounds. Turn Blue is a great example of that, kind of that gurgling. Every song there’s something like that going on.”

The record is a stark, almost antithetical response to El Camino’s slick, touch-and-go riff-rock. The darkness and near-viscosity of Turn Blue is intriguing, and predictably had reviewers and fans alike loading their semi-automatic keyboards in preparation for a Danger Mouse hunt. Carney understands the animosity, but he’s quick to defend Burton.

“Writing about music is a difficult thing, especially when you don’t have access to the band and you’re pitted with guessing. It happens to a lot of reviewers and it happens to a lot of fans, so logically, you go through and say, ‘Okay, well this band made songs and records in a basement on their own, and then they started working with this producer, and that’s the culprit.’ It’s totally not true.”

He continues, “We love working with Danger Mouse for a lot of reasons. One of them is he keeps his hands off the sonic stuff. He’s more concerned with arrangement and melody, and in a way, he has the same kind of minimalist ideas that we do.”

“When we made our first record, I was 21, Dan was 22, and we didn’t know what we were doing. That was basically the case for the first four albums. It was two dudes who love music figuring out how to do everything, and doing it all on our own. So just from the amount of time like learning and understanding how to be better musicians, how to be better engineers and better writers… It’d be really hard to end up 12 years down the road doing the same stuff as when we didn’t know what we were doing.” 

Carney mulls for a moment, resting his chin on his right hand, peering at the wall. 

“I was obsessed with synthesizers as far back as right when I got into music. We’ve always wanted to incorporate that kind of stuff. Before we even made [2008’s] Attack and Release, we both had a large collection of keyboards. We just never used them… There is a very stark contrast between the first record and, say, Turn Blue. It’s drums, a little bit of bass, guitar and singing, and this new record, it’s anything we wanted to play, and that’s the only difference.”

Carney implicates the Keys inherently miniature size in the early days. “It was really restrictive before for us. Most bands aren’t two-piece bands. We were concerned for a long time about how to perform the songs we made live, so therefore it just instantly limited us. It wasn’t until we kind of decided just to record what we wanted, instrument-wise, and not really be concerned with how to play it, that’s when we really started embracing a lot of stuff.

“It actually made it a lot more fun making records,” Carney asserts earnestly. 

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“The last thing I would be concerned about is what a band is doing other than the music they make,” mutters Carney. “And if you don’t like the band’s music that they’re currently making, then just don’t fuckin’ listen to it. It seems pretty simple to me.

“Artists in general always get called sellouts. Especially musicians for some reason, it doesn’t really happen to actors, it doesn’t really happen to painters, it doesn’t really happens to film makers or writers, it happens to musicians and I’m not really sure why that is. It doesn’t concern me. It used to bother me, when someone would say something like that, or give us shit, but as artists the last thing you need to do is worry about what other people say. Trust the people close to you. Don’t listen to some fucker on the internet.”

And yet, while stiff-fingered critics are slinging mud at the band, bands are slinging mud at the wall, in desperate hopes something will stick.

“A lot of my favourite bands have made multiple records that I don’t like at all, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like the band. That’s just part of the creative process. Andy Warhol’s made probably more garbage than he has anything worthwhile, but he’s still a great artist,” he confesses pointedly.

“A lot of people who are critical of people’s decisions don’t really have a grasp on what the creative process is like… I’m not referencing us really, I’m referencing certain bands who aren’t breaking through but doing the same amount of work as a band that does. They work harder than most people, and usually they’re not bringing home much money. Cause you see a band play in a big room, and [they’ve got] a tour bus and everything, but that money has to get divided like seven different fuckin’ ways. A band trying to figure out a way to continue to do what they love shouldn’t necessarily get ridiculed. It’s not like they’re wearing shirts that have like Pepsi logos on it, they just decided they would work extra hard.”

Clearly invested but still somber and paced, he remarks, “Somebody’s looking at Gaslight Anthem, and calling them sellouts. Those guys are probably just fuckin’ trying to support themselves.” 

Carney, as is nearly impossible to not do, harbours some frustration over the music industry’s venomous grind, but not in an utterly, singularly bitter, cynical sense. Rather, in the end, it’s an oddly quixotic and ‘at-peace’ mantra that he reveals.

“I know that the person who has made the most amount of money off of music probably in the last 10 years is the person who started Spotify,” he shrugs. “That’s the reality. The guy that has made the most amount of money off music has probably never written a song. So musicians always get fucked a little bit.

1 Jessica Amaya

Photo by Jessica Amaya

Chin once again nested in hand, he goes on to expand the picture: “I’ve never been disillusioned with music. Right when we started, we just wanted to make records and we’ve been able to do it. You just learn from other people’s mistakes, and your own mistakes, how not to get screwed over. As a musician, no matter what, if somebody’s calling you a sellout, at least people are listening to your music in some way, and that’s really what it’s all about.”

The sun begins to shine on the shadow of major-label horrors.

“With all the bad fall-out any band can have from doing something different than what they’ve previously done, at the end of the day, you’ve still cheated the system,” he accentuates. “In any creative industry, there’s a lot of people who figure out a way to make money off of shit, because artists are usually slightly distracted. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter too terribly much because we are doing what we love to do.

He says honestly, wryly, “No one really is that passionate about writing code to let people stream music, and if they are, I wouldn’t want to be them. Everybody’s a capitalist to a certain degree. You’re kind of forced to be if you live in North America.” 

So, cards on the table and eyes on the Aces up the sleeves of their detractors, Carney and Auerbach trundle on, hopefully for another 13 years on top of the previous, and as they do, they’re faced with a daunting reality: they are shaping the music of generations of new musicians. Just as Junior Kimbrough, Pavement, and DEVO were to them, they are to millions of fresh-faced, brace-faced music listeners and, importantly, creators. 

“On this tour, I’ve met some people who’ve told me they’ve been listening to our band since they were like 12, and then last night we had a 13-year-old kid come to the show, and its cool to see,” he intimates. He almost allows a smile, but not quite. “It just reminds me of being a kid. That’s when music really is the most special.

“When you’re like 11-18, you define yourself through the music you listen to. It’s the first sense of freedom, cause you gotta get up, you gotta go to school, you gotta fucking get your grades, then you have to get a job, and you have to worry about all this shit, but the one thing is, you can always listen to whatever the fuck you want to listen to. Everybody will figure out a way to do that.” 

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Interview and words by Luke Ottenhof


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